With the voices of Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau. Written by John August. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action. 87 minutes.
Animated horror for kids is hot this year. FRANKENWEENIE follows hot on the heels on “ParaNorman” and “Hotel Transylvania.” Unfortunately, it is the weakest of the three. Tim Burton was an up-and coming-filmmaker at Disney when he made the 1982 short about a boy scientist who brought his dead dog back to life. It was considered so out there that Disney cut him loose. Now, thirty years later, they’re releasing the feature version of it.
For Burton, the irony is rich and must be immensely satisfying. Of course, revenge is sweet. Yet other than getting the last laugh on Disney there doesn’t some to be much reason for it. A twenty-nine minute short has been bloated to 87 minutes and the padding shows. There’s an air of desperation as Burton tries to breathe life into a career that has many films but since 1994’s “Ed Wood” has precious little to show for it with last summer’s “Dark Shadows” his latest flop. (“Sweeney Todd” has its partisans, including this critic, while the abysmal “Alice In Wonderland” was, inexplicably, a box office success.)
The core story is still the same. Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) is a young boy who is a budding scientist and fan of old monster movies. When his beloved dog Sparky dies after being hit by a car, Victor retrieves the remains for his laboratory and brings Sparky back to life. Comic adventures ensue, with the other students using Victor’s work to conduct their own experiments. Suddenly there are giant turtles, vampire cats, and other weird pet-turned-monsters rampaging through the town, and it’s up to Victor and Sparky to save the day.
Uncritical young viewers will no doubt enjoy such antics, but even they may find themselves bored or baffled by some of Burton’s choices. Most of the characters are caricatures, from the Japanese-American student who borders on stereotype, to stock Burton “weirdos.” Unfortunately, they lack the charm of the characters from something like “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” None of them manage to win our sympathy – even with Victor’s love for Sparky – making it hard to care about the proceedings.
In addition, Burton has elected to do this in black-and-white. Thirty years ago, it was a tribute to the horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s that he’d grown up watching on TV. Today, there’s no reason for it and is unlikely to mean anything to its intended young audience. Black-and-white worked wonderfully last year in “The Artist” in evoking a bygone era. Here it just makes the 3D look gray and grim.
When people complain about modern Hollywood they often note that filmmakers seem to have run out of ideas. In the case of Tim Burton, expanding a well-regarded short into a questionable feature-length film could stand as the perfect example of that. “Frankenweenie” isn’t irredeemable, but compared to other animation out there this year, it does suggest Burton’s time may have come and gone.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.