Gloomy "Frankenweenie" Impresses With First-Rate Visuals

It’s hard to believe that Tim Burton’s post as cinematic virtuoso has been a point of contention for nearly two decades now. 1994’s “Ed Wood” was his last triumph of unanimity, and the years since have given us relative highs (“Sleepy Hollow”) as often as resounding lows (“Planet Of The Apes”). 2010’s “Alice In Wonderland” was arguably his worst directorial outing to date, an unnecessary, unseemly catastrophe of a film – but it made a mint for Disney. Hence, it was surprising to see this year’s “Dark Shadows” (also starring Johnny Depp) flop as badly as it did. “Shadows” proved that Burton’s visual eye is as strong as ever – which isn’t lost in “Frankenweenie” – but audiences and critics have apparently tired of his slack storytelling and predictable goth sensibilities. “Frankenweenie” suffers a similar identity crisis, but both its pleasures and overwhelming sense of melancholy are as undeniable as the heights Burton reached all those years ago – and it’s no coincidence.

“Frankenweenie” is the progenitor of all Tim Burton films. It was originally a live-action short film he made for Disney in 1984 (one of his first), and it got him fired. The company was by all accounts horrified by it, and he was dismissed from his duties there. However, actor Paul Reubens enjoyed the short enough to hire Burton to direct “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” the beginning of a remarkable run of films for the director. Cut to 2012 and Burton’s career has come full circle. He’s made Disney billions of dollars and in the process has earned enough respect and power to bankroll any project he sees fit. So, with so many resources at his disposal, it’s curious that he’s chosen to go back to his roots, but the resulting film is more Burton-esque than anything he’s done in a long time. In many ways, it’s a signal that he’s trying to start over as a storyteller – visually and otherwise.

At its heart, “Frankenweenie” is a simple story about a boy and his dog. Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his four-legged best friend, Sparky, spend their days together as the former works on science projects while the latter socializes with the neighbors’ poodle. Victor is predictably shy and shuttered, and his parents (the great Catherine O’Hara and equally talented Martin Short) force him into playing baseball to become more sociable. As a result, Sparky is killed while chasing a baseball into the street and the grief-stricken boy withdraws further. Eventually, inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor brings his dog back to life via harnessed lightning and the film’s parallels to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” take shape. Victor’s classmates become jealous of his “science project” and make their own haphazard attempts to resurrect their own pets to win a science fair.

The animation is beautiful and the decision to paint and shoot in black in white makes for stunning results. The film looks equally fresh and vintage, and the fluidity of movement is second to none in the world of stop-motion. Several of the setpieces must have been agonizing undertakings because of the precision involved, but they certainly pay off. The attention paid to light and shadow is just as important as the models themselves and there were obviously no shortcuts taken. If Tim Burton is a master of anything, it’s as a visual artist, and it’s absolutely the strongest point of the film. The moments between Sparky and his poodle friend, free of dialogue and narrative constraints, absolutely shine.

Regrettably, the rest of the story becomes confused by the halfway point, led by a terribly uninteresting subplot about a local celebration involving Victor’s neighbors. It’s only when Victor’s classmates unleash the terror that is their zombified pets (the mythical “Colossus” is a highlight) does the story move at a reasonable, humorous clip. The rest of the film just isn’t funny and it emits a solemnity that rivals some of Burton’s gloomiest material. The movie isn’t appropriate for the under-10 set, and crying kids will likely be a staple of “Frankenweenie” screenings across the country. Also, the “loss of a family pet” angle hits hard and a few scenes will be very emotional for some viewers. If you make it a point to avoid movies that deal with the subject, cross this one off your list. As Tim Burton films go, “Frankenweenie” is as visually keyed-in as any, but his storytelling could still use a little shock therapy of its own. Fans won’t be disappointed, but this is anything but a tightly scripted, lighthearted romp.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 5, 2012
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John August
Starring: Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images and action)