October 25, 2012
Film Review: Frankenweenie

Tim Burton
Score: 5.2

At this point, director Tim Burton is less a filmmaker and more of a brand unto himself, a commodity with a well-established bag of tricks that he dutifully rolls out for each picture he makes. In this way, he’s similar to other such established stalwart filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Preston Sturges or Alfred Hitchcock. Though, it was precisely because his brand was so well established that enabled Hitchcock to throw the horrifying curve ball that was “Psycho” onto an unsuspecting audience.

Burton, it would seem, has no intention of ever going against his type, thank you very much. He’s made a tremendous living for himself following his own aesthetic, and sees no reason to challenge himself or his audience any further. This philosophy extends beyond his live-action material (the woebegone “Dark Shadows,” released this summer, just the latest example) into his animated work as well. This film, about a loner kid with a keen interest in science who figures out a way to bring his beloved dead dog back to life, comes from Burton’s deep, dark past — the original short was one of his early films before his career took off with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” back in 1984 — but in many ways, it echoes the material that has stapled his artistic existence ever since.

The kid, Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan), is a standard Burton protagonist: Dark of hair, unsettled of soul and preferring the company of his dog to anyone else up in his attic laboratory, to the worried consternation of his parents (Catharine O’Hara and Martin Short), especially after Victor’s dog, Sparky, is hit by a car and killed. When Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), a new science teacher in his school, gives a forceful presentation about the power of lightening, however, young Victor conceives of a way to bring his best buddy back into the world of the living.

Things go relatively swimmingly, until an unscrupulous classmate with a Quasimodo hump and a rotten set of teeth (Atticus Shaffer), catches wind of Victor’s success and demands to know the secret or will reveal all. Naturally, this leads to more of his classmates finding out and trying their own hand at bringing back dead animals, with predictably horrific results.

The black and white stop motion animation, a bit like an animated Edward Gorey cartoon, is impressive — even the tactile fabric of Victor’s pants has a pleasing thread count — as is many of the subtle smaller touches and paeans to Burton’s career (using Winona Ryder as the voice of the disenfranchised goth girl next door is a particularly welcome move), yet as the film zips through its predictable paces, it still feels a bit hollow. Like a chocolate Easter bunny that turns out to be nothing more than a shell, the script (credited to John August, another Burton staple) only sticks to a kind of surface appraisal, content to amuse but not to thrill.

The end result is a modestly pleasing kid’s film that feels a bit like an afterthought, a chance for Burton to once again return to his favorite sort of Charles Addams-like world, one in which everything is gloomy and more than a little macabre, but where kids get to spend the rest of their lives with an undead little dog and we are to find that thoroughly uplifting.

May 11, 2012
Film Review Link: Dark Shadows

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