Anytime someone makes a stop-motion animated movie it is a good thing. The universe needs more movies like ParaNorman and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The fact that Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s feature adaptation of his own 30-year-old short, is black & white and stop-motion is kind of amazing. Both formats are dying breeds and generally seen as noncommercial. Unfortunately, being different and being good are not synonymous, which is funny because embracing weirdness is one of the film’s main themes.
The first half of Frankenweenie is the strongest. The young Victor Frankenstein is quickly introduced as an inventive loner. He makes home movies, loves science, and his best friend is his dog, Sparky. Victor’s parents, his school, and various townsfolk are also presented in a concise fashion. The film sets the stage impressively with crisp visuals and little fuss.
The world of Frankenweenie is one big love letter to Burton’s favorite horror films, mostly the classic monster films from Universal. The Frankenstein series is the obvious influence with Mary Shelley references and Ygor. When Sparky meets an untimely end, Victor continues the homage by bringing him back from the dead. Later, when his experiment is co-opted and out of control, the winks and references spill over. Everything from Gamera to Gremlins to The Birds to Burton’s own Beetlejuice receives a shout-out. Some of this is quite fun and a few times even humorous, but most of them feel lazy and uninspired. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge great films of the past. Something else must be done with them.
The film also tries to impart one too many messages, so that they become mixed. Why is Sparky any more special than Mr. Whiskers? And when the action climax begins the film actually becomes duller. Perhaps the thin story has been stretched to the breaking point by the 60-minute mark. I’m sure the throwback charm and classic quotations will be enough for some, but I’ve seen Burton do this before and better in Ed Wood (his best movie).
It is, however, a nice way to introduce kids to some classic monsters. The film has maybe one scare, so I wouldn’t hesitate to bring the little ones. The script may be shaky, but the voice acting is robust. Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara impressively voice multiple parts. O’Hara’s Weird Girl is my favorite and I wish the character were featured more. Martin Landau steals the show (like he did in Ed Wood) with his no-nonsense teacher Mr. Rzykruski. Burton has been on a terrible streak lately, so returning to his roots and championing the little guy is a good move, just not a great movie.
*A 3D note – I saw Frankenweenie in 3D at one of the top-tier theaters around and I would not recommend it. Not only does it ghost a lot, but also the black & white was not suited to the effects of darkening glasses.