Review: Frankenweenie

It would be a lie to say that I went to see Tim Burton’s new stop-motion animated film with great expectations. On one hand, Burton’s recent films had been more or less unremarkable variations on the “Johnny Depp in weird make-up stars in the remake of a story not written by Burton” theme (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows etc), which made many people wonder about where Burton’s career is heading. On the other hand, extending a short film into a feature may not always turn out to be a good idea- for Shane Acker’s “9”, for example, it mostly wasn’t. (“Frankenweenie” was initially a short imagined and directed by Burton in 1984.) But I’m glad to report, after seeing the yet-unreleased in Romania “Frankenweenie” in a London multiplex, that I liked it a lot, and that I now have a possible answer to the question about the future direction of Burton’s career- If he were to ask me, I’d say he should make more animated movies.

Of course, the story in “Frankenweenie” is loosely based on previous material written by somebody else as well. Here, however, Victor Frankenstein is not an ambitious and slightly mad scientist looking to bring a revolution in the science world through building a monster from dead bodies, like in Mary Shelley’s famous novel. Our Victor is just a school kid with a passion for scientific experiments who lives in a quiet suburb with his caring family and his beloved dog, Sparky. When Sparky is killed in a car accident, Victor decides, out of too much affection for his pet, to bring him back to life- and, what do you know, he actually succeeds.

Undoubtedly, animation is the best medium for this story, since a lot of the jokes come simply from the design of the characters, or the sets; for instance, a pet cemetery where the deceased have suspiciously elaborated headstones that look simultaneously sinister and adorable (which is a combination that accurately describes most of Burton’s work, actually). Regardless of whether you are a fan of Mr. Burton or not, I don’t think anybody can deny that his visual style is memorable and instantly recognizable as his, which is more than can be said about most mainstream, big studio animated features. I love Pixar movies, for example, but their style is the studio’s style, there is no distinctive voice of one filmmaker to be heard, and their directors seem to be more or less interchangeable. From that point of view, we must give to Burton what is Burton’s: seeing his trademark big-eyed, long-limbed characters again was like meeting with an old friend. (Though I wish he would have resisted the ever-present trend of making every film a 3D one, because, in this case, the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the viewing experience).

Actually, in a way, “Frankenweenie” seems like a slightly satirical dictionary of Burton-isms compiled by Burton himself: we have our outcast protagonist, we have our lovely suburb setting which turns out to be lovely only on the surface, we have a story about a creature who should be monstrous, but the storyteller’s sympathies are in fact firmly on the side of the so-called monster (see also: Scissorhands, Edward), we have a ton of nostalgic references to horror movies old and new and, of course, references to Burton’s previous work as well- a character that looks exactly like Winona Ryder in her “Beetlejuice” days is voiced by Ryder herself; Martin Landau, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood”, lends a Lugosi-like voice to a science teacher that looks exactly like Vincent Price and so on- I have to stop here, or I’d never finish. Burton knows we’ve seen all this before and that we enjoy seeing it again- Frankenweenie is not a movie for kids as much as it is a movie for movie lovers. Which doesn’t mean it’s inadequate for kids or anything- just make sure they’re old enough to tell fiction apart from reality, so they don’t end up trying to revive their dead hamster with electricity too. Otherwise, it’s a pleasant, not-too-long film that doesn’t try too hard to be funny, nor does it try too hard to be touching, and that is precisely why it occasionally succeeds in being both. It is by no means exceptional, sensational or great, but we don’t always need to see things that are superlative in some way.

I’ll end by saying that I’ve always loved Burton’s un-cynical commitment to stories that actively shun resignation and defeatist attitudes. We are generally told that we’re supposed to find something we’re good at, and keep doing it in order to become productive members of society. Burton’s “Ed Wood”, which is my favorite film of all films ever made, tells us that it’s OK to keep doing what you like even if, in fact, you are not good at it at all, as long as it makes you happy. In “Frankenweenie”, Victor’s parents are trying to console him by telling him that “when somebody you love dies, they move into a special place in your heart.” In any other story, Victor would have learned to accept the truth of this sentence and death in general as an inevitable and irreversible fact, and so on and so forth. “Nonsense”, says Victor. “I can fix this. With science!” Sure, in real life, science can’t fix everything (yet). But without people who believe that it could, nothing would ever get fixed, now, would it?

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