In 1984, a budding filmmaker named Tim Burton made a half-hour live-action short film called Frankenweenie about a boy who resurrects his dead dog through science. The short was shot in black and white, was a loving send–up to B-level monster movies and felt unfocused, unpolished and long. Twenty-eight years later, the same filmmaker returned to the same story and told it in the same spirit. The only difference is that 2012’s Frankenweenie is made through Claymation and has quite a bit of polish. It still feels unfocused and long.
This is an ugly movie, laborious and starved of originality. When pitted against creative and bright fare like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and ParaNorman (2012), (which the Academy does in the 2012 best animated feature category), Frankenweenie seems decidedly inferior, a feeling it gives off even when pitted against an average movie. Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) is an anti-social loner, whose only friend is his dog Sparky and only activity is making space invader movies with his home-movie camera and his toys. His parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) are concerned by his lack of social acumen but encourage his creativity in moviemaking. When Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) arrives at Victor’s school and passionately teaches strange science, Victor is swept along and ignores his filmmaking for experimenting. After Sparky is struck and killed by a car, Victor brings him back to life in the style of his namesake: by use of lightning.
Sparky’s resurrection is part of a town-wide science boon among the community’s young people, as a looming science fair with its prestigious top prize inspires an arms race between Victor and his sidekick Edgar Gore (Atticus Shaffer, sounding like a pre-teen Peter Lorre) and Nassor (Short again) and Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) who are also dabbling in necromancy. The town’s adults, especially the reactionary Mr. Burgemeister (Short a third time), rub their hands and make a devil out of science, firing Mr. Rzykruski and deterring Victor and his pals from any more scientific trouble-making which, of course, is ineffective. Monsters of all sorts begin popping up in the town and they all descend on the community’s Dutch Fest, causing much havoc.
This is Burton’s second try at Claymation after Corpse Bride (2005) (Burton was the producer of 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,which is even billed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, though it was directed by Henry Selick; and 1996’s James and the Giant Peach, also by Selick), but the inspiration that informed Corpse Bride and Burton’s productions of other stop-motion pictures is completely absent here, giving us generic creations that are remarkable only in their ability to be unappealing. People and creatures are scraped from the bottom of the design barrel, completely forgettable and prosaic, consistent in their wide unexpressive eyes, angular pale faces and proficiency to repel. Multiply this by the aimless story, stretched thin by the meager tale that inspired it, and you have a recipe for a depressing experience.
The movie feels like the B-movies it’s sending up and that’s a problem. In Burton’s best work he is able to lovingly honor his low-class inspirations without ever sullying his own filmmaking with it. This is certainly the case with Ed Wood (1994), which is an exceptionally crafted tribute to one of the worst filmmakers of all time. Frankenweenie feels like a movie Ed Wood, were he blessed with Burton’s technical prowess, would have made. Frankenweenie is permanently at arm’s length from its subject, as if Burton, the master of morbidity, lost his nerve when making his story for children, giving us a softer and weaker vision from a man whose movies must rely on that vision to succeed. Burton, in movies such as Edward Scissorhands (1990) and his Batman pictures, is gifted at showing how proper society alienates eccentricity, but his Lynchian exposure of the sickness of suburbia is unfocused in Frankenweenie and instead we’re left with a roster of characters we don’t like very much and don’t care about at all.
The whole movie feels labored and forced, which is understandable when trying to squeeze 90 minutes out of a story that felt beyond its depth at 30, and any clever moments it’s able to produce (these are generally subtle references in the script) are smashed away by the overwrought and sterile set-pieces. This is a dog that should been put down long ago.