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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 previous films or TV shows. Although this nominally clever take-off of Frankenstein, about a boy’s successful effort to “re-animate” his late pet dog, is distinctive as the first black-and-white 3D stop-motion animated production of this new three-dimensional era, it is nonetheless imaginative in a highly familiar and ultimately tedious way. 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.
“I don’t want him to turn out, you know, weird,” says Father Frankenstein, as if there were ever any choice in Tim Burton’s universe. In a blandly uniform postwar suburban housing development that looks like the next town down from the one in Edward Scissorhands, skinny science geek Victor Frankenstein loses his beloved hound Sparky in an auto accident. As in the original short, the pooch is ceremoniously buried, under a large tombstone, in a creepy cemetery on a hill. 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 inject some spark back into poor old Sparky — which, surrounded by all manner of flashing and fritzing jerry-bilt equipment, he manages to do up in the attic on a dark and stormy night.
While frequent Burton screenwriter John August has added considerably to the limited concept of the short by inventing a whole second act in which Victor’s fellow students steal his secret and thereby bring other dead animals to life, he has failed to eliminate one major irritant: Victor’s compulsion not to reveal his accomplishment to his parents. Since you know it’s only a matter of time until they find out, all of Victor’s frantic efforts to hide his deed are extremely tiresome, which was particularly harmful to the original 1984 version.
This time, when the other kids get out their kites, wires and electrodes to zap new life into an assortment of critters that includes a cat, rat and Sea-Monkeys, the result is a small army of monsters seemingly on loan from Gremlins, Gamara and Burton’s own Mars Attacks! But while they cackle and stomp and make funny faces as they invade a festival celebration on Main Street, these beasts, working under a PG imperative, don’t actually do anything particularly untoward, which is consistent with the toothless, not to mention secondhand, feeling of the entire enterprise.
There’s a palpable sense of Burton’s past catching up with him here; Sparky’s stitched-together body recalls Edward Scissorhands, as does Victor’s pronounced outsider status, while the goth kids’ huge eyes and mostly spindly torsos are carry-overs from most of the director’s work. Creatively, the detailed work with the stop-motion puppets, horror film-derived production design and visual effects, bizarre costumes and hair, crisply evocative monochromatic cinematography and loopy musical score are all more than commendable. But just as they pay homage to a beloved old filmmaking style, all these elements feel like second-generation photocopies of things Burton has done before. It all feels pretty rote and empty, drained of the old Burtonjuice.
Opens: Friday, Oct. 5 (Disney)
Production: Walt Disney Motion Pictures
Voice cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell, Winona Ryder
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John August, based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps, based on an original idea by Tim Burton
Producers: Tim Burton, Allison Abbate
Executive producer: Don Hahn
Director of photography: Peter Sorg
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Mark Solomon
Music: Danny Elfman
Rated PG, 87 minutes
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