Runtime: 1 HR, 27 MIN
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Tim Burton, John August, and Leonard Ripps
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Christopher Lee, and Martin Landau
The 2000′s haven’t been kind to Tim Burton’s career in this film critic’s opinion. The last Tim Burton film that I enjoyed enough to purchase was 1999′s Sleepy Hollow, since then it’s been an bumpy ride filled with a few passable yet ultimately disappointing films. This trend continues with Frankenweenie which is easily Burton’s best film in years but it still doesn’t entirely work.
Victor is a young, aspiring filmmaker with a loyal and lovable dog named Sparky. When Sparky is tragically run over by a car Victor takes the loss very hard. When his Vincent Price-esque science teacher shows him how electricity can cause movement in a dead frog’s leg Victor is inspired to bring Sparky back to life in the same manner. Unfortunately, his success in bringing Sparky back is short lived as the school’s peculiar student population takes aim at duplicating his success with disastrous consequences.
As surely almost everyone knows Frankenweenie was originally a live action short film directed by Burton for Disney in 1984. The original Frankenweenie was supposed to run in front of the re-release of Pinocchio but was deemed too frightening for children, Burton was fired, and the film was shelved until the mid-nineties when Burton had become successful enough for Disney to want to capitalize on his name. The film is currently available for free on YouTube (for how long I don’t know) and as an extra on the Blu-ray of A Nightmare Before Christmas.
The problem with Frankweenie isn’t with it’s looks, the film looks absolutely stunning. The black & white photography is superb, and adds a wonderful vintage element to the film that fits in perfectly with the script’s tone. There’s a lot of energy on screen and I’m not talking about the kind that’s used to shock a dead dog back to life. Sadly, the energy used to bring the stop motion animation to life doesn’t transfer to the voice cast. Burton regulars Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Short, and Christopher Lee are all essentially wasted and are easily upstaged by Sparky who is adorable and is capable of displaying so much emotion through his eyes, cries, and body language. The only cast member that really gave an inspired voice performance was the always reliable Martin Landau who channeled a very amusing and convincing Vincent Price.
It seems that some filmmakers get a pass on racial stereotypes whereas others are raked over the coals. Just a few years ago Michael Bay was lambasted for his “racial insensitivity” for creating the gold toothed, ghetto talking Autobots Skids and Mudflap in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen yet Tim Burton can have an extremely stereotypical Asian kid and no one bats an eye at it. I’ve met my fair share of Asian kids in school and as an adult and I’ve never heard one in real life that sounds like Victor’s school chum. His voice wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a 1940′s Looney Tunes cartoon, you now the one where Bugs meets the Japanese soldier stuck on a Pacific island. Warner didn’t release it for decades since they deemed it so racially insensitive.
Aside from the uninspired voice performances and some socially insensitive stereotypes where else does Frankenweenie fall flat? Simple, the same place the original film fell flat… the morale of the story. Usually I won’t comment or judge a film based on what it’s trying to say. Instead I judge it on its entertainment value which I consider to be of the up most importance. Frankenweenie is certainly entertaining to look at, but like the original it misses the mark on the message it should be sending. Most kids have pets whether it be a dog, cat, fish, bird, or otherwise and there’s a good chance that a child will have to deal with the death of a pet. That’s part of being a pet owner whether your a kid or not. Pets do not live forever, and as sad as that is, it’s something that you’ll have to deal with if you decide to bring any animal into your life. In Frankenweenie Victor refuses learn that lesson, he circumvents death, and therefore doesn’t learn the coping skills to deal with that kind of event. For a film that borrows so many story elements from Frankenstein Burton seemed to forget that Frankstein’s Monster meets an unfortunate end himself partially because he just wasn’t meant to be.
Kids aren’t going to watch Frankenweenie and assume if their dog or cat passes away that they can hook them up like a cell phone and charge them back up. Kids are smarter than that, but Frankenweenie missed an opportunity to be both entertaining and ‘educating’ at the same time. A common complaint I have with almost all Tim Burton films is that they’re all style with no substance. Frankenweenie almost breaks that trend, but in the end he sacrifices substance for a sweet Disney ending that is as ill fitting now as it was in 1984.