Tim Burton has a wavelength. A lot of people reading this are on that wavelength and love most of what he does. For me, however, I find it elusive. He's made movies I enjoy but often I struggle with them, enjoying parts but being put off by the whole.
That continues with Burton's new feature-length expansion of his 1984 short film "Frankenweenie." Now done as stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie is essentially the same movie as the short—just cut it open at the 20-minute mark and add about 50 minutes of side story.
For those unfamiliar with the original, Frankenweenie is an homage to the Frankenstein movies. Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a young boy who doesn't have much of a social life but enjoys making movies that star his dog Sparky (Frank Welker, providing only dog sounds, as Sparky does not speak). When his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) pressure him into participating in sports, he has a moment of greatness brought low when Sparky is hit and killed by a car.
Despondent in science class the next day, Victor is inspired by the old electricity-and-dead-frogs demonstration put on by Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) to see if he can reanimate Sparky using a lightning storm. Of course it works, and Victor must spend the rest of the movie dealing with the consequences.
©Walt Disney Pictures
Since most people won't pay $10 to see a 30-minute movie, this is where they need to start padding the story. The science class is having a science fair and all the students want to win it—and a number of them think they have a shot, because they learn that Victor has returned his dog to life, and they think they can use it to their own ends. As Mr. Rzykruski explains—in a not very good summary of how science works—the motivation and emotion of the experimenter affects the outcome. So when these other students try it, the outcomes are somewhat dramatic, and provide the filler the movie needs.
At least for me, the first half of the movie was somnolent. This isn't to say it was bad, but the combination of low-contrast black-and-white (or least it was after the 3D glasses took their toll on the image brightness), stop-motion animation, little dialog, and the score all conspired to make me very sleepy before the action began to pick up in the second half.
When fully alert, the movie had the pacing of a Loony Toons short more than a story. Setup, gag, setup, gag. Sometimes the setup precedes the gag by a lengthy period (70 minutes of an almost painfully stereotypical Japanese character will have to be tolerated before the payoff is delivered) but it is still mostly just a bunch of jokes placed end to end. Many worked, but they'd have worked just as well in my living room.
©Walt Disney Pictures
Ultimately, from me, Tim Buron once again has inspired a response where I can see the cleverness of what he's done and can respect the skill with which he's accomplished it. But I can say the same for a well-made velvet painting, and that doesn't mean I want one.
The animation itself is impeccable (except for the character of Mr. Rzykuski where Burton made a stylistic choice I dislike) and the voice cast all do a great job.
Twenty-eight years ago, Disney fired Tim Burton after he made the original Frankenweenie for having wasted their time and money, and Disney has regretted it ever since. If you generally love Tim Burton movies, then you should have every reason to expect you'll love this one, and can relish that eventually Tim Burton returned and got to make it again. On the other hand, if you find Burton's style a bit wearying then be wary (though you can still enjoy the big circle of Hollywood life).
Frankenweenie is a Walt Disney Pictures release.
Wide theatrical release Friday, October 5.
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Landau, Atticus Shaffer
Running time: 87 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, and action
Alex's Rating: 6 out of 10