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That Tim Burton’s new film Frankenweenie is an expansion of a half-hour live-action piece he made for Disney in 1984 merely serves to punctuate the fact that five of the eight films the director has made since 2000 have been remakes of movies or TV shows. Although this nominally clever takeoff of Frankenstein, about a boy’s successful effort to reanimate his late pet dog, is distinctive as the first black-and-white 3D stop-motion animated production of this new 3D era, it nonetheless is highly familiar and ultimately tedious. But Burton’s name, the 3D calling card and small-fry appeal will yield good returns in line with his previous animated productions, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.
In a suburban housing development that looks like the next town over from the one in Edward Scissorhands, science geek Victor Frankenstein loses his beloved hound Sparky in an auto accident. But a science class demonstration of how the application of electric current can make a dead frog kick its legs gives Victor a bright idea about how to inject some spark back into poor Sparky.
While frequent Burton screenwriter John August has added considerably to the short’s limited concept by inventing a second act in which Victor’s fellow students steal his secret and bring other dead animals to life, he has failed to eliminate a major irritant — Victor’s compulsion not to reveal his accomplishment to his parents. Because it’s only a matter of time until they find out, his efforts to hide his deed are extremely tiresome, which was particularly harmful to the 1984 version.
This time, when the other kids get out their kites, wires and electrodes to zap new life into an assortment of critters, the result is an army of monsters that, working under a PG imperative, don’t do anything particularly untoward, which is consistent with the film’s toothless feeling.
There’s a palpable sense of Burton’s past catching up with him here; Sparky’s stitched-together body recalls Edward Scissorhands, while the goth kids’ huge eyes and spindly torsos are carryovers from most of the director’s work. Creatively, the detailed stop-motion puppets, horror film-derived production design and visual effects, crisply evocative monochromatic cinematography and loopy score are more than commendable. But just as they pay homage to a beloved old filmmaking style, these elements also feel like second-generation photocopies of things Burton has done before. It all feels rote and empty.
Opens: Friday, Oct. 5 (Disney)
Voices: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder
Director: Tim Burton Rated PG, 87 minutes
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