Movie Review: Frankenweenie

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When his dog dies, a young scientist brings him back to life, unwittingly causing chaos in his small town.

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Tim Burton, 2012

Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) spends most of his time in his attic making gadgets and producing short films, much to the consternation of his father. Papa Frankenstein (Martin Short) worries that Victor spends all his time inside and has no friends except for his dog Sparky. Sadly, Sparky is killed by a car a few days later. The enterprising young Victor refuses to let that be the end of their friendship, though. Using techniques he learned from eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he brings Sparky back to life…but tries to keep him secret. The slow exposure of Sparky’s undead state of being brings out jealousy, manipulation, and cruelty in his classmates, and ultimately sends his town into a tailspin. Ultimately, it’s up to Victor, his knowledge of science, and his friendship with Sparky to save the town.

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I’m pretty sure this is is a movie of what would happen on a tour through Tim Burton’s brain. Frankenweenie is an odd duck, a black and white stop-motion expansion of Burton’s 1984 short film of the same name. Sadly, it doesn’t have the story to sustain a full-length feature film. It also doesn’t have the tempering sensibilities of a second person to let Burton know how much is too much, unlike the superior Nightmare Before Christmas or even Corpse Bride. The result is a padded, muddled movie that will entertain film fans, but alienate kids and the two adults I watched it with who both fell asleep less than halfway through. The pacing is painfully slow, and the monster mash ending feels tacked-on and unearned. The film also could have gone for a more realistic downer ending, which would have fit its aesthetic much better, but it seems as though it’s trying too hard to stay in the kids’ zone while absolutely, definitely not belonging there. I don’t know who this movie is for, in the end. Perhaps Tim Burton completionists who want a look into their hero’s mind. While all the strange details are lovingly rendered and the world has a very distinct Burton-esque aesthetic, it is undeniably, unquestionably bizarre.

It takes a while to become accustomed to the world of Frankenweenie, which is oddly cynical for its ultimately optimistic outlook. The kids are mostly nasties, with the exception of Winona Ryder’s Elsa van Helsing (a carbon copy of Ryder’s Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice). Even the poor, unnamed Weird Girl is punished just for being different. There’s some casual racism around a heavily accented character named Toshiaki, whose every moment on screen made me cringe. The gender politics are appalling, too – witness the two love interests (hero and dog, though the poodle’s Bride of Frankenstein hair is cool), the 50s housewife mother, the butch gym teacher, and poor Weird Girl. However, in spite of all that, Frankenweenie does have its charms. The stop-motion-movie-within-a-stop-motion-movie that starts the film is a cute, fun romp that gives us some insight into who Victor is. The relationship between Victor and Sparky is absolutely convincing, and the dog’s early death genuinely heartwrenching even though you know he’s coming back. The details of the world are pretty cool (the pet cemetery is a great set), although there are certain threads that are picked up and then dropped without much care. There are a few laughs, as well – watching Mr. Rzykruski lament the small-town fear of science is a hilarious scene that really pinpoints how we all feel when we watch these kinds of sci-fi monster flicks (“To you, science is magic and witchcraft because you have such small minds!”). It’s also genuinely fun to see the film’s spin on various movies of the past. Ultimately, though, even the love between a boy and his dog can’t quite sustain an hour-and-a-half long film. Watch ParaNorman or Nightmare Before Christmas instead.

Frankenweenie on IMDb

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