- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by David Medsker
rankenweenie” is as Burtonesque as Tim Burton movies come. It’s also a mess, a parade of amusing moments and clever ideas that never come together to form a cohesive whole. Burton apparently worked on this at night while directing “Dark Shadows” during the day. Both movies would have benefited greatly from his undivided attention.
Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a middle school-aged boy who loves science but has no friends, save his faithful dog Sparky. When Sparky is killed in a car accident, Victor is devastated, but gains hope when his new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) inadvertently inspires Victor to try to bring Sparky back from the dead using electricity. Against all odds, Victor succeeds, and while he does his best to keep his reanimated dog a secret, Sparky is curious, and it is not long before Victor’s classmate Edgar Gore (Atticus Shaffer) sees the once-dead Sparky running around. Edgar then blackmails Victor into helping him on his science fair project in exchange for his silence, but Edgar spills the beans anyway, inspiring Victor’s classmates to take their own shot at bringing the dead back to life, with disastrous results.
There is a lot of borrowed source material here, from “Frankenstein” to “Pet Sematary” to “Gremlins,” not to mention every monster movie the ‘50s produced. The first three movies are good sources to be sure, but the story doesn’t click on any level, opting for quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness over plot, emotional depth, or logic. It’s not enough on its own; even the oddest movies need to be grounded. Take, for example, the lidless, Luna Lovegood-looking girl who takes part in the resurrection sequence even though she has no real reason to, and it winds up costing her dearly. Also, why did some reanimated animals turn into monsters and some didn’t? It may make for some striking visuals (two words: sea monkeys), but it makes no sense.
Burton peppers the movie with reference upon reference, and that’s fine but, to borrow Roger Ebert’s expression about special effects, he didn’t give us any reason to care about the reference. That comes from the story, and given the path this one took, it’s easy to see why anything heartfelt may have been lost in translation. The script was written by John August. August’s script was based on a story by Leonard Ripps. Ripps’ story was based on a 28-year-old short film by Burton. It’s like the kids game Telephone, where ‘bittersweet story about a boy and his dead dog’ turns into ‘an entire town of Goths being torn apart by the overly competitive science students’ (!) at the end of the line. The science fair ‘B’ story ends up consuming the boy-and-his-dog ‘A’ story, and as a result the audience has emotionally checked out. And God help them, they even screwed up the pitch-perfect ending that was literally lying at their feet.
Thank heaven, then, for Martin Landau, who turns in an all too brief but hilarious performance as the feisty Russian science teacher, and give Burton credit for making sure his movie stayed true to its monster movie roots and didn’t look too slick. Maybe, though, Burton was too close to this project for it to work under his guidance. Someone else – Henry Selick, perhaps – would have made the tough choices for the sake of the story, without letting sentimentality getting in the way. Or maybe Burton did what he did here because he was sleep-deprived from doing two movies at the same time. Either way, “Frankenweenie” doesn’t work, though it certainly had the potential to be the offbeat crowd-pleaser he intended it to be.
Three-Disc Blu-ray Review:
This is a really hit-and-miss affair, but the hits are what will drive people on the fence to pull the trigger. The two featurettes that cover the making of the film and the dolls are pretty dull, but the short films, both a new one and Tim Burton's 1984 original short film (which stars Daniel Stern and a young Sofia Coppola), are money. For Burton fans, that last piece alone makes this a no-brainer. Pity the full-length movie wasn't a little better.