Frankenweenie: Stitched Together

by Sandra Olmsted

Tim Burton’s newest animated horror film has all the parts one would expect: a dark palette of colors with just a dab of color thrown in to emphasize the power of electricity and characters whose oddly elongated bodies and jerky movements accentuate their creepy normality and awkward interactions.

However, like Frankenstein’s monster, the film lacks a soul and needed sympathetic characters who have real emotions and conflicts; unfortunately, Burton’s characters in Frankenweenie are about as easy to warm up to as the unreanimated goldfish. Even the main character is never as sympathetic as he needs to be.  Even though Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and Sparky (voice of Frank Welker) have the deep and abiding relationship every boy-and-his-dog movie needs,

Victor, who the audience should recognize and like as the lonely outsider, is not much different or more likable than New Holland’s equally strange, cold population.  Unlike Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward in Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s Victor lacks the essential connection with the audience, and perhaps the difference is that Burton produced those films while someone else directed, and Burton directs Frankenweenie.

The film is an amusing riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. When Victor’s dad (voice of Martin Short) makes playing baseball a condition of Victor participating in the science fair, it leads to a tragedy of Sparky chasing Victor’s home run into the street. Victor should have been angry at his dad for making him play, himself for hitting the first home run of his life, and everyone for the loss of his only real friend.  Victor cries, but it doesn’t ring true because, without the guilt and anger, it doesn’t feel real, and in animated films, the characters’ responses must be more real to keep the audience enthralled. Soon after the accident, Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voice of Martin Landau). demonstrates how electricity can make a dead frog kick its legs, and Victor gets an idea.

After one evening of creating a machine, Victor digs up his beloved Sparky and brings him back to life. Although Victor’s classmate eventually discover Sparky is alive again, they think the reanimated Sparky is Victor’s entry in the science fair and set out to replicate the experiment with dead pets or wild animals.  Even sea monkeys and one live pet, Mr. Whiskers (voice of Dee Bradley Baker), get caught up in the reanimation frenzy. While the mutations that the animals take on and most of Victor’s classmates are engaging homage to such films as Universal Studios’ Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy, and Toho Co., Ltd.’s Godzilla, the children disturbingly think that animal life is disposable.

The people of New Holland aren’t much better at the human connections, which are never shocked into life. Mr. Rzykruski is sent packing by the narrow-minded, pitchfork-wielding townsfolk, so he and Victor never develop a relationship. Elsa Van Helsing (voice of Winona Ryder), the girl next door, has a strange uncle who is caring for her, but this unexplained living arrangement lends an unpleasant kind of creepiness.

Elsa also has a crush on Victor, but it’s Elsa’s poodle, Persephone (also the voice of Baker), who develops a relationship with Sparky. Even Victor’s mom (voice of Catherine O’Hara), with her patient detachment, never minds when her kitchen appliances go missing for Victor’s experiments, and Victor can always slip one past his mom. However, seeing Victor seeking advice from Mr. Rzykruski or falling in love with Elsa, or seeing mom’s exasperation would have added some much needed conflict.

Burton is either slipping or he just isn’t cut out to direct, and just as Frankenweenie is a remake of a live-action short he made for Disney in 1984, five of Burton’s eight films since 2000 are remakes of other films or TV shows. The film offers some clever site gags now and then and has a delicious look to the black and white with hints of bluish electricity. The homage Burton pays to the great black-and-white creature features is nostalgia that might be lost on the youngsters, but it’s fun for the oldsters.

Although Frankenweenie never really connects with the audience as well as the films Burton produced, it is worth seeing because it is the first black-and-white 3D stop-motion animated production to use the new technology and because the animation is so well done.  I wanted to love Frankenweenie as much as I loved Burton’s other films.  It’s enjoyable, and kids fascinated with monsters will like it, but this  isn’t one of  Burton’s best work.

Frankenweenie is a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Walt Disney Pictures, Tim Burton Animation Co., and Tim Burton Productions production. The film runs 87 minutes and is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action, but parents should consider whether their children will enjoy this dark tale.

More of Olmsted’s reviews can be found at www.thecinematicskinny.com.



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