In the mid eighties, Film School graduate and up and comer Tim Burton released two short films to pitch at studio level. The first was Vincent, a fun little animated short showcasing the eerie and endearing creative style that would later shine in A Nightmare before Christmas and Beetlejuice. The second, Frankenweenie, was a live action homage to Burton’s first love, thirties Universal horror, wherein a boy harnesses the power of the elements to bring his dog back from the dead. The recently released feature film is the manifestation of the latter. As Burton fans can readily attest, he has been holding this “pet project” in reserve for quite a while now, and after a slew of mediocre releases punctuating his recent career, those same fans can only hope that, with passion invested, Burton will start his slow rise back to form.
Before going to see the film, I would highly recommend hunting down the original short (easily obtainable on YouTube), as the remake serves as one of those golden examples of how not to adapt a short film to feature length. The short runs at 30 minutes, and serves as a great grounding for the basic premise: it’s shot in black and white, there are allusions to the universal gothic horror lore and there is clearly room to flourish should it get picked up for a feature release. The feature length Frankenweenie more than delivers on the first two, but not so much on the third. Drab tertiary characters and abandoned plot threads clutter the first two acts, in place of potential extensions on intriguing ideas surrounding the nature of and the ultimate admission of death from the perspective of a child. The plot starts well, the death off the dog a gut wrenching moment on par with scenes seen in Bambi, or Up, but soon succumbs to the usual pot-holes of “kiddie-cinema”, cheesy life lessons and bland plot threads a-plenty. In all, it feels as if the basic premise of the short: A boy riddled with grief decides to enter a pseudo-fantasy world fuelled by the horror classics of old, isn’t given enough meat to stand as a feature.
The good news is that what the film lacks in narrative drive and exploration, it more than makes up for in Burton’s signature creative spark. It is lavishly shot in the style of 1950’s suburbia and with stop motion animation a hurdle rarely climbed in children’s films of late, it is truly a joy to see Frankenweenie take to the style with such splendour. The third act is poorly set up, the “science fair gone wrong” only just emerging as the central plot line, yet it gives the film so much room for creative flourish – fans of Gremlins and the Godzilla franchise should get a kick out of the sly references in the penultimate scenes, and there are at least a few laughs to be had from the Burton-esque pitch black humour. It is just a shame that the creativity on show has not been married with the script that it deserves.
Overall, this is certainly Burton’s best creative work in years, so I would recommend it whole-heartedly to fans, as well as those who like the older thirties horrors. For those that don’t glean so much from his style, there just isn’t enough here for a recommendation.