Unreal (Guest) Movie Review: Frankenweenie

As part of my ongoing series of movie reviews that come out too late to make much of a difference, Paul has allowed me to step in and post the official review of Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion animated feature, Frankenweenie.

Since Burton seems to be a somewhat polarizing figure these days, let me go ahead and label myself a fan of his. From his groundbreaking work on the Batman series, to his skewed adaptations of Dahl and Sondheim, Burton rarely misses outright for me.

Sadly, his biggest miss in… forever? came with Alice in Wonderland. I’m picking a scab a bit by just bringing it up, but it really may be the worst movie I’ve made the mistake of attending in the past five years. Has Burton lost his touch? Did I ever truly like him in the first place? What the hell was Johnny Depp doing? These are questions that I haven’t been able to shake since 2010.

But now, with Frankenweenie, Burton has answered (two of) them.

Frankenweenie, for those of you who somehow missed the ad campaign that ran for what feels like half a year, is about a boy named Victor Frankenstein. He’s a loner; a weirdo; his father doesn’t understand him and his classmates take advantage of him. Victor’s only true friend is his dog, Sparky. Unfortunately, Sparky dies, but the young science whiz invents a machine in the attic that brings him back to life.

With its familiar mix of high style, dark humor, and loner characters, Frankenweenie is right in the middle of Tim Burton’s strike zone. Does it offer any surprises? Not really. Is it a good movie? Actually, yes.

A movie like this absolutely depends on the audience’s sympathy for the main character (and his dog). Burton nets this easily, rendering the outsider Victor as the most normal kid in the school. It’s a typical move for the director (remember the lively, colorful land of the dead in Corpse Bride?) but an effective one.

Sparky, too, develops into a surprisingly sympathetic character. In one of the best moments of the movie, Sparky returns to his gravestone, curls up, and goes to sleep. Victor’s best friend wants to be there for his master, but he also wrestles with the sense that his continued existence is, in fact, an abomination.

Now, this stuff is mostly working under the surface, but the point is that the core character story of Frankenweenie has a bit more thought put into it than your average animated flick. And two bits more darkness.

The voice work, as is typical for Burton’s animated outings, is solid. Most animated flicks these days prefer bouncy, high-energy vocal tracks, but Burton’s material has always taken a more subdued tone. His characters typically sound off in a mix of melodrama and sadness, providing a welcome respite from the status quo.

Really, that’s what Burton’s style is. Sure, he winds up making movies that look awfully similar to one another when viewed from a distance. But every time I allow myself to sink into a Tim Burton dreamscape, I find that I really kind of needed it. In this case, Frankenweenie’s actors and designers work together to unleash his darkly comic tone on grade school and suburbia.

What of the story, though? Can the world of cinema sustain yet another bite from the Frankenstein apple? Surprisingly, it can. Burton draws primarily from the classic Universal film adaptation of the story (the Boris Karloff one), using familiar components like the burning windmill and the ascending stretcher in the lab. If you’ve seen that movie, you’ll feel right at home here.

(Conveniently, I had just finished a marathon of Universal’s Frankenstein, Wolfman, and Dracula a couple weeks ahead of watching this. I’d recommend at least a couple of them to get you in the mood.)

Once the story gets underway, Burton employs a savvy combination of homage to and departure from the classics that keeps the story feeling fresh, even as it follows much of the path paved by those old movies.

It’s to the credit of Burton and writer John August that the movie feels like more than a hodgepodge of dated filmfan references. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that the monster movie homages fly thick and fast towards Frankenweenie’s climax.

The monster moments come straight out of the unfolding plot, allowing the story to move forward instead of stalling out while Burton tells us what his favorite movies were growing up. You can read more on this elsewhere, but this film is allegedly one of Burton’s most personal projects to date.

So where does Frankenweenie rank in Burton’s catalog? Its strong emotional core puts it above fun-only fare like Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice, but it lacks the punch of Scissorhands, the ruthlessness of Sweeney Todd, or the beauty of Corpse Bride. I’d say it’s in the top third of his output as a director.

In short, it’s unlikely that Frankenweenie will win Burton any new fans. If you don’t like his style, you likely won’t like this movie.

For those of us who DO love Burton — or at least Burton when he’s on his game — this movie serves as a welcome return to form after a couple of tragic letdowns. Let’s hope the master of macabre is back for good.

4 out of 5 stars. A solid rental in the dead of winter (which will be when it hits home video).

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