Tim Burton Still Has Some Magic Left
Tim Burton is a name synonymous with whimsy. Unfortunately in the last 15-years his work has been synonymous with mediocrity. Burton’s work load hasn’t decreased (some would argue it should) in the past decade but his project selection has been decidedly uninspired. Since Sleepy Hollow in 1999 Burton has “re-imagined” several American Classics including: Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and to a lesser extent the recent Dark Shadows. Sprinkle in a couple solid efforts (Big Fish, Corpse Bride & Sweeney Todd) and you realize it’s been a long, shallow road since Ed Wood, Batman and Edward Scissorhands. That’s why Frankenweenie feels so fresh and alive. It’s his most original picture in years, even though the idea is over 30-years-old.
Frankenweenie spins a simple yarn about a boy and his dog. Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a loner; he spends most days with his dog Sparky doing science experiments in the attic. Victor has a mind and affinity for this kind of work. At school his class has a new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) who encourages his students to push the boundaries of their minds and discover the wonders of the world. All of the students begin preparing for the big science fair.
Victor’s parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) however pay him little mind but would like to see him be more social. When Victor’s Dad forces him to go out for the school baseball team he is less than thrilled. In the film’s most heart-wrenching scene, Victor hit’s an unexpected home run which Sparky chases into the street. Sparky is struck by a car and dies leaving Victor heartbroken. After days of mourning he devises a plan. Maybe by using the power of science he can reanimate his deceased pooch and bring him back to life.
The rest of the film devolves into simple monster movie madness. Burton livens up the action with many well-timed winks to horror movies past. All of these are fun but he loses focus on the simple core of his narrative. The relationship of Victor and Sparky is charming and could’ve carried the film but Burton can’t help but stuff the short running time with meaningless secondary plot points. The ending still has punch but could’ve meant much more if this wasn’t the case.
That said the film is immensely watchable. Burton’s black-and-white stop motion world is stunning. The animation is flawless and is the film’s most consistent charm. The character designs are far reaching and often hysterical. Victor’s classmates are apparently all from different countries and each have a unique design. This leads to many of the films biggest laughs as each personality gets time to shine. I’ve rarely ever heard complaints about Burton’s visual sensibility and Frankenweenie is no different.
Burton’s choice of voice actors is commendable, opting almost completely for character actors outside of his typical stable. Martin Landau delivers the most memorable performance as the staunch substitute teacher Mr. Rzykruski. His disdain for this small town is palpable but he finds hope in the molding of young minds…he just has a funny way of showing it. Charlie Tahan as Victor is nicely understated as well which is a choice Burton uses effectively throughout.
Frankenweenie’s star is of course Sparky the dead-alive dog. As a dog-owner I appreciated the way Burton just let Sparky be a dog rather than opting for an inner-animal monologue or some-other tired Hollywood animal ploy. Instead he lets Sparky lead us through the film’s most inspired and heartbreaking moments. And although the film may not have enough juice to sustain its run-time, Burton finds enough magic in the simple relationship of a boy and his dog to be worth the trip.
What My Wife Thought: It’s all very melancholy but there’s plenty of laughs so it doesn’t slip into melodrama. I didn’t care for the black and white but overall it’s a great scary movie for kids!