REVIEW: 'Frankenweenie,' The Funny, Creepy — And Poignant — Tale of a Boy and His Undead Dog
It’s too bad that Frankenweenie comes at this late-middle stage of Tim Burton’s career when the director, now more brand than auteur, has lost his older fans, because it’s exactly the kind of funny, creepy, poignant film many of us have been waiting for Burton to make since Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s probably too early to peg Frankenweenie as Burton’s comeback vehicle, but it’s certainly the director’s best movie in twenty years.
As with his best films, the origins of Frankenweenie hail from Burton’s early years. The new movie expands a 30-minute short the young director made for Disney, who famously fired him for making such a morbid spectacle for children. Fans of the short, now a cult classic, can breathe a sigh of relief; Burton has expanded the story cleverly and meaningfully, and the feature feels less like a remake than the self-actualization of a great idea.
Frankenweenie takes place in the generic, timeless suburb of New Holland, notable only for its freakishly frequent thunderstorms. When the school’s science teacher gets struck by lightning, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), an Old World soul with Vincent Price’s face, comes to substitute. He quickly becomes a source of inspiration to Victor (Charlie Tahan), a tall, lanky, slightly sullen boy whose only friend is his dog Sparky. (The 1984 short’s bull terrier is replaced by a more normal-looking dog breed, probably to the benefit of bull terrier puppies.)
Alas, Sparky is dispatched in short order via sudden automobile encounter, and Victor, because his last name is Frankenstein, decides to bring his dog back to life the old-fashioned way: by digging up its body, lugging it back to his attic lab, and striking it with lightning. Victor has a hard enough time keeping Sparky’s resurrection from his parents, but things get more complicated when his competitive classmates find out about the undead dog, assume Victor revivified Sparky for the science fair (a guaranteed first-place win!), and repeat the experiment with their own long-dead pets with drastically more dangerous results.
Victor is a cute dud of a protagonist, but the bizarre side characters around him are absolutely delightful. His sort-of bully is the mouth-breathing Edgar “E.” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), an ambitious dimwit who’s a perfect amalgamation of the hunchback sidekick of yore and the weird kid in school who drowns his bologna sandwiches in chocolate milk before eating it with a fork. A perpetually terrified schoolmate (Catharine O’Hara) stalks Victor while cradling a Bond villain cat with one hand and clutching its poop with the other, intoning that the fluffball’s produced an omen Victor must heed. (The poop is the omen.) Sparky himself is a refreshingly doglike dog, none too bright and rarely cloying.
But the standout character is Mr. Rzykruski, the new science teacher, who has a face like a weathered tribal mask that’s somehow warm and friendly. He’s also an unabashed elitist, and goes on a hilarious pro-science rant at a PTA meeting that might not go over well in certain red corners of America, but whose reason and passion can’t be argued with.
Frankenweenie doesn’t offer much in the way of new visual motifs; if you’ve seen a Burton film once or twice, you won’t be surprised by anything here. Still, the stop-motion animation is as beautiful as the medium has to offer. Shot in atmospheric black-and-white, the puppets come alive through variegated textures and unexpected angles. (The use of 3-D theatrics is surprisingly spare, so the $3 surcharge probably isn’t necessary to enjoy the film to its fullest.)
Burton’s visual team at Disney has imagineered a carefully detailed world that weds Brancusi-like character design to recognizable laws of physics, creating a world that feels simultaneously familiar and strange. And for the first time in a long time, Burton’s obsessive love of creature features serves him well, with subtle, clever allusions to B-movies and recent thrillers. Best of all, the film’s morbidity is disgusting in a perversely joyous way, going beyond aestheticizing skeletons to mining for humor in the squirming, rotting beauty of life after life.
The frank simplicity of Frankenweenie is certainly crucial to its success, especially compared to the director’s overstuffed, convoluted Alice and Dark Shadows. All the same, it’s hard to resist wanting Burton to try just a little harder, especially when it comes to his lazy spoofing of the suburbs. The tale of a lonely misfit trying to escape the stultifying blandness of his pastel hell is a story Burton’s told time and again — done best in Edward Scissorhands, but also in Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, and Corpse Bride.
The young Burton grew up in the ticky-tacky town of Burbank, California, and so it’s easy to understand why the director so often uses the ‘burbs as the straw man in his films. He wants his heroes to be mavericks, even progressives, polar opposites of characters like the traditional, cartoonishly patriarchal mayor in Frankenweenie who demands everyone be just like him.
But in the post-Douglas Sirk, post-Desperate Housewives, post-gentrification era of today, Burton’s “social satire” seems not only dated, but irrelevant. And too often, Burton’s gentle excoriation of the rigid social values of the suburbs serves as a cover for the fact that he is one of the most socially conservative mainstream filmmakers working today. His casts and characters are almost shockingly whitewashed, even for Hollywood, and his oeuvre brims full with passive, doll-eyed heroines in need of rescue. (Even the dragon-slaying Alice, Burton’s only female protagonist in thirty years of filmmaking, needed plenty of saving.)
In Frankenweenie’s New Holland, for example, the sole nonwhite resident is a vaguely villainous Japanese boy who fits all the negative stereotypes of Asian Americans: haughty, foreign, smart but uncreative. And when the students’ experiments go awry, Frankenweenie works up to a thrilling, satisfying climax, but the plot conspicuously twists and contorts to have its two male heroes take turns heroically saving their love interests. Tim Burton obviously revels in old-fashioned styles, but that’s no excuse for outdated sensibilities.
Inkoo Kang is a Boston-based film journalist and regular contributor to BoxOffice Magazine whose work has appeared in Pop Matters and Screen Junkies. She reviews stuff she hates, likes, and hate-likes on her blog THINK-O-VISION.