Early Genius, Haltingly Reanimated

This expansion of a 1984 Tim Burton film isn’t as lively as the original

Before things took off with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Tim Burton made a live-action black-and-white film, in 1984, called Frankenweenie. You can find it on YouTube. It’s really good. Just about everything we now know as Burtonesque—passionate devotion to ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s Hollywood; English and Japanese horror; the Leave it to Beaver-but-sinister vision of American domestic life; the black humor; always in the corner of the societal outcast and the idiosyncratic artist—was there from the beginning.

Burton took the Frankenstein myth and redid it with a dog. Young Victor Frankenstein and his beloved bull terrier, Sparky, who stars in Victor’s homemade monster movies, conduct a fantastic science experiment after Sparky’s demise (this happens early) involving the re-animation of dead tissue. It works. So did the film.

The new, expanded-but-not-improved Frankenweenie has arrived in theaters, again directed by Burton, from a script by Burton’s frequent screenwriter John August. This time Frankenweenie is an animated stop-motion 3-D affair, though still in black and white. Stretching the story for an additional hour, Burton unleashes a gaggle of cutely vicious monsters for a protracted climax, including a Gamera-type giant turtle and nasty little flying cats with fangs and wings. In the vein of Mars Attacks! (not one of my favorite Burtons) Frankenweenie has a somewhat jaded and uneasy air, which seems an odd thing to say about a movie that does, at heart, believe in its boy/dog love story. But there it is.

You name it, you’ve seen it in earlier Burton films. The images of manicured, slightly antiseptic suburbia? Straight out of Edward Scissorhands. The “sad, under-slept” faces of the characters (my son’s phrase) are very much in line with the sallow lineup of Corpse Bride. The growling authority figure Mayor Burgemeister comes right out of Nightmare Before Christmas.

The key archetypes in Frankenweenie adhere closely to the best-known of the classic Frankenstein films, James Whale’s 1931 original and the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. Victor’s Igor-like sidekick and the Vincent Price-inspired science teacher (here voiced by Martin Landau, so sweet as Bela Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood) set the tone for playfully macabre scares and mildly amusing riffs. But the balance has been tipped toward horror this time, too far for my taste. The monster-movie component of Frankenweenie stomps all over the appeal of the original 30-minute version. The pathos seems misjudged and a little ruthless; without the proper mixture of chills and whimsy, poor Sparky’s fate(s) comes close to Vertigo territory, which is ambitiously morbid territory indeed. And not quite right for Frankenweenie.

I like what actor Charlie Tahan does with Victor’s hesitant, guarded voice, and he blends in well with Burton regulars Catherine O’Hara (Mrs. Frankenstein and two other roles) and Winona Ryder (the timorous outcast-next-door). Martin Short, relatively restrained, handles three parts with aplomb. The entire project is carefully wrought in visual terms and more than a little familiar. Sometimes even a well-applied pair of jumper cables can’t do the trick.

Frankenweenie (PG) ★★★☆☆



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