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There’s a lot to love in Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s caring, stop-motion animated ode to reanimation. But, as one might suspect from its very concept, there isn’t a lot that’s new about the film.
Frankenweenie is itself a revival act; it’s an update of the live-action short that helped kick off his filmmaking career almost three decades earlier. Now, clout, financing and exposure to writer John August and puppet design team Mackinnon & Saunders have allowed for a full-length version of the familiar story.
Charlie Tahan voices Victor Frankenstein, a highly sympathetic outcast in the idyllic suburb of New Holland. Whose one love is his dog, Sparky. When Sparky dies after being hit by a car, Victor channels his inner Dr. Frankenstein, and finds a way to bring his beloved friend back to love, only a little bit worse for wear. Fans of the genre, and of course, formula in general, know that complications must ensue, especially as nosy neighbors and classmates stop minding
Burton not only channels Mary Shelley’s brilliant classic, but also the B-horror movies of the 1950s, particularly in the portrayal of ominous science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, a throwback to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. So who better to voice Rzykruski than Martin Landau, the actor who won an Oscar for playing Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood? Landau hilariously, and ominously, channels the delivery of key horror players Karloff, Lugosi, and Vincent Price. And he’s not the only member of the Burton family making a return visit. Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice) and Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) voice Victor’s well-intentioned parents, and Winona reprises the goth eccentricity of her Beetlejuice character, Delia, as Elsa, Victor’s neighbor and niece of Dutch-obsessed New Holland mayor, Mr. Bergermeister (also voiced by Short).
And the performers aren’t the only Burton regulars returning; Danny Elfman’s haunting choir score and Chris Lebenzon’s sharp editing skills also enlisted for the ride. As a result, a lot of Frankenweenie evokes undead ghosts of Burton past, notably Edward Scissorhands’ portrayal of nosy suburban life. It’s all done cleverly, and with great tongue-in-cheek charm, but I’m not sure who the intended audience for Frankenweenie really is. Burton’s gently dark touch is a lark for adults, but the material all feels known. And if young children can get immersed in the movie, they likely won’t pick up on the celebratory feeling that comes from reuniting Burton’s team or its genre callbacks.
Part of the thrill of early Burton films -- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas -- was how the director could marry traditional effects with emerging technology to make even the most mundane or juvenile detail like a stolen bike or a sullen teenager – feel fresh, fun, even thrilling. That’s what I’d like to see Burton do next – zap his own career back to life.