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Thursday, November 1, 2012


Before you flame me for being too harsh about this film, I strongly suggest checking out Paranorman, which comes out next week and did a very similar thing, far better. I just happened to see both on the same day and Frankenweenie was done no favours by being screened second.

Also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

When young Victor Frankenstein's dog, Snowy, dies, he uses what he learned in science class to bring the dog back to life. But how will the close-minded members of his small town react to this flagrant defiance of the laws of nature? Worse, what happens when his less pure-hearted classmates try and use the results for their own selfish reasons?

What we thought

Based on his own short film from the early '80s, Frankenweenie is clearly a film near and dear to the heart of its creator, Tim Burton, and, if nothing else, it certainly comes across as a more personal work than the remake-heavy trajectory of his last few films. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's an entire return to the wonderful highs of Burton in his prime, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Mind you, it's hardly fair to say that Frankenweenie is an entirely original idea, as it is basically a riff on Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, but it plays out less as a remake – or “reimagining” as Burton sometimes likes to call his remakes – and more an homage to the monster story that started it all.

It also clearly owes a debt to many of Burton's own previous work as the spindly, gothic character designs are very much in line with those found in Corpse Bride and the Burton-produced Nightmare Before Christmas. In terms of both its monochromatic colour pallet and its affection for old black and white monster movies, it shares common DNA with Burton's best film, Ed Wood. As for its rather “weird” but basically good-hearted and likeable outcast heroes and its “normal” but fundamentally rotten in-crowd baddies, Frankenweenie is like every other film Burton has ever made.

Being Burton-by-numbers doesn't change the fact that there is still plenty to like, even love about Frankenweenie. For a start, it's simply beautiful to look at, as the set design and the choice to shoot it in black and white gives the film an aesthetic that is very similar to the black and white b-movies of the first half of the 20th century, while still being classically Burton-esque. The amount of sheer love that Burton has both for these old movies and for his outcast heroes comes through in full force too, which elevates the film from a technical recreation of these old films into a heartfelt love letter.

Burton also wisely understands that at the heart of Frankenstein was a message about meddling with science and a palpable fear of the unknown, but is even wiser still to understand that that particularly anti-science message may well turn off a lot of today's audiences – especially the more liberal ones. Instead, he has adapted Frankenstein's message to say that there is no such thing as “good” science or “bad” science, but that the intentions of the scientist will affect the “goodness” of the outcome of his experiment.

In the film, Victor Frankenstein's noble intentions to restore his dead pet to life has notably better repercussions than the monstrous results of his classmates' attempt to use the same science to improve their grades. It's not an idea that entirely works, far from it in fact, but Burton's heart is clearly in the right place here. Better yet, this particular theme allows space for Martin Landau to steal the show with his Vincent Price inspired science teacher who is, by some distance, the most memorable character in the film.

This sadly brings us to why the film is still so unsatisfying, despite all its good intentions and its many terrific parts. Frankenweenie is a stylistic triumph, it's themes are interesting and its good hearted in all the best ways but it is sorely, sorely lacking in both characterization and story. Landau's Mr Rzykruski is the film's only truly engaging character and even if Snowy the dog is cute and Victor Frankenstein likeable, they're never much more than that, while the rest of the cast come across as little more than nondescript rejects from other Burton films.

In terms of its story and its storytelling, the film fares even worse. It's easy to see that the film is based on a short story; there just isn't much there once you get past the basic premise. It's lethargically paced, often uneventful and it all builds up to a surprisingly silly and anticlimactic ending. The jokes too are never as funny as they need to be when you consider just how much Mel Brooks did with the same material in his classic comedy, Young Frankenstein.

It's hard not to recommend a new Tim Burton film, especially when it gets as much right as this one does, but it's disappointing that Frankenweenie is never allowed to be more than pretty good when just a bit more time spent on its script could have resulted in something truly special. Especially since in just a few short weeks we have the similar but far superior Paranorman coming our way.

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