Director: Tim Burton
In feature animation the budgets are bigger than ever and the competition is fierce in an environment where companies like Pixar and Dreamworks are competing to one up each other in terms of box office receipts and quality filmmaking. It’s often rare to get a simple film that will please kids and with Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton has done more of the former than the latter, making a charming little film based on a concept he created decades ago in the form of a short. Unfortunately, it’s also full of mixed messages, frightening to youngsters and lacks some of the heart a passion project should possess.
Victor Frankenstein, voiced by Charlie Tahan, is an aloof elementary school introvert that is getting pressure from his father to become more outgoing. He doesn’t have any friends, save for his beloved dog Sparky. But that’s all he needs, really. What’s wrong with that? His passions are filmmaking and science and he desires to enter the science fair. His dad makes a deal: play some baseball outside, and you can compete in the science fair. That all turns disastrous when his dog dies chasing a ball hit into the street. Naturally, being loosely inspired by the Boris Karloff Frankenstein film — complete with several homages including the infamous windmill — he decides to bring his dog back to life.
That would be all well and good if he could keep the dog chained in his room, but dogs aren’t meant to be chained up. They’re rambunctious and will break free of our meager human restraints, and that’s exactly what happens here. The other kids in the neighborhood take notice, and soon it spawns copycats with less favorable results. With these science experiments run amok, the kids have to band together to put them down. The problem is that at its heart, there is a really charming story of love, loss and how we as humans have to learn to let go of things, but all of that action gets in the way. Frankenweenie seems to lose focus and run out of steam halfway through. And instead of hitting the theme out of the park, they squander a valuable lesson.
Luckily, not everything is wasted as Martin Landau voices a science teacher named Dr. Rzykruski that has valuable, hard lessons to dish out. Science is feared from those that don’t understand it. That fear is bolstered when people use science — something without any inherently good or bad will — for devious purposes. He challenges the parents to realize their kids can outpace them if given the chance from an early age. Education is a backbone, and science must be about doing things that some people won’t agree with.
As for the animation, Sparky in particular is fantastic and the 3D in moments, like the graveyard sequences, enhances the film as a whole. Burton fully embraces his stark, black and white aesthetic and in many ways that benefits the film. Half of the fun seems to be for adults — and maybe well-versed children — recognizing the various homages throughout the film. While it serves as a worthy introduction for children to the horror film tropes, sometimes Burton relies to heavily on this aspect. He kicks off with strong themes and a vivid style, clearly showing more passion than he has in recent years, but Frankenweenie has a difficult time fully coming together in a cohesive fashion.
Frankenweenie screened at Fantastic Fest and opens on October 5th.
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