Victor Frankenstein, voiced by Charlie Tahan, with Sparky, in a scene from "Frankenweenie."
In the Mary Shelley-inspired Frankenweenie, a boy named Victor Frankenstein, heartbroken by the unexpected death of his beloved pet Sparky after being struck by a car, turns mad scientist and resurrects the dog through the power of lightning. Bringing Sparky back from the dead has a series of unexpected, mostly funny consequences, which culminates in a delirious send-up of the Frankenstein story as Victor's neighbors, frightened by the lovable and sweet beast now marred by scars on its body and two bolts on its neck, chase after the dog to a windmill.
This dark and clever children's fable is a film for young fans of Tim Burton, specifically those who have come of age with the director's more recent efforts such as Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
For those of us who came of age along with Burton's nascent career as a promising director with a unique vision and style, Frankenweenie is another example of the filmmaker's arrested development as an artist.
Frankenweenie isn't a bad film; it's rather good in places, and the stop-motion animation rendered in glorious black and white is wondrous to behold. Frankenweenie will dazzle with its 3-D animation and an engaging story that, while billed for children, is probably closer to the PG-13 crowd than its PG rating would indicate. But for anyone who's seen the original half-hour Frankenweenie short from 1984, which Burton directed for Disney and was meant to accompany a feature film — the studio initially hated it, thinking it too frightening for kids, and ultimately canned him — there's bound to be disappointment in his new and hardly improved feature film.
While most of us have grown beyond our past, Burton's filmmaking career largely remains entrenched in a singular motif: bringing to light noble-hearted but misunderstood, quirky, and downright odd denizens of the bizarre. It's the one near-constant in Burton's sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddening career.
The original Frankenweenie also was live action, and featured characters rooted — as much as can be in a Frankenstein-esque film — in reality. They were normal people thrust into an abnormal situation, and that's what made the story so much fun and joyously creepy: the dichotomy of characters and their circumstances. Burton is also an expert in reversing the roles, with quirky people existing in a straight-laced world: Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood. But lately it's been all quirk all the time; there's no juxtaposition between normal and abnormal. This was the case with the summer bomb Dark Shadows, and so it goes with the new Frankenweenie.
Burton and screenwriter John August stick to the original Frankenweenie's three-act outline, while introducing extra oddball characters meant as homages to monster movies past, and assorted final-act mayhem to account for nearly an extra hour of running time. Compared to the shorter and more to the point original, the expanded Frankenweenie is padded and less focused, meandering from a simple path of what was a clever parody/homage.
Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Tahan as Victor provide the voice talent to the characters, but other than Martin Landau's oddball and delightfully grim science teacher, there's not much of an improvement from the truncated cast of Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern as Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein and Barret Oliver as their son. The same could be said of the film itself.
Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, based on a Burton and Leonard Rips story. A Walt Disney release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, and action. Running time: 87 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
Voices of: Charlie Tehan, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Martin Short, and Catherine O'Hara.
Contact Kirk Baird email@example.com 419-724-6734.