Retro Review: Frankenweenie.
Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie has good moments, but takes too few risks to be truly memorable.
Our next stop on the tour through Tim Burton‘s career takes us to the last of his stop motion projects. He received much praise for his musical outings in the genre, most notably for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton got his start from Disney for his animation work, and has teamed up, off and on, with the company, despite them axing him for making a live action version of Frankenweenie in 1984. Oh, how the wheel turns!
Several smash hits and lively animated movies later, Burton was back in the good graces of the mouse company. So he did what any self-respecting auteur would do: he remade the film that got him fired. Put that in your steamboat and smoke it, Mickey. Either tastes have changed, or Burton made a much friendlier version, because 2012’s Frankenweenie flirts with subversive content, but delivers a mostly generic adventure.
Young Victor Frankenstein is a satisfied youth. He’s not particularly popular, but he has acquaintances. He has hobbies such as home movies and science fairs. His parents are generally supportive. His crown jewel is a dog named Sparky who adores him. Unfortunately, one day at baseball practice, his dog tracks down his miracle home run ball…into the street. With Sparky much, ehm, flatter, Victor decides to harness science to bring back his best friend. Things go well, until his classmates learn about it and want to use his method to win the school science fair.
Small Town, Big Themes, Small Change.
Frankenweenie is ambitious in spurts, but never runs with any one theme. The theme of alienation for a bright young child is broached, but quickly evaporates. Victor has things too good. He doesn’t have friends, but everyone generally respects him. Even his antagonists are constantly saying how smart he is. He’s got the interest, non-romantic, of two smart young ladies. His parents support him, mostly, and his dog worships him. He’s only disadvantaged in a whiny kid at Hot Topic kind of way.
The film then pivots to the plight of Victor’s science teacher. He is an immigrant of vast mental capacity, who is run out of town for his unblinking belief that science, for good or ill, is the truth. He excoriates the town people for trying to quench the students love of science…and then leaves. His words don’t reverberate, or inspire Kevin Bacon style dancing. Scientific dancing, perhaps. Nope, he just leaves, and so does any “hard” science in the film.
And it turns out the townspeople were right!
If the film was trying to paint Victor Frankenstein as a misunderstood genius, it fails. His work causes destruction. The film tries to make this sympathetic by making the townspeople into insufferable asses, but that’s no good. That’s the B-Movie horror trope of making the victims into sluts and jocks, people we want to see die. Jason Vorhees isn’t the hero for killing people we want to see die. He’s still a dick with anger issues.
The film then tries to salvage it’s love of science by saying that bad science is the result of the experimenter not loving his project. Bullshit. Almost everyone involved with the Manhattan Project hated it by the end, but that was some fucking great science. Not the kind of thing you can cuddle up with, but it advanced our understanding of nuclear physics a ton. A megaton, if you will. So yeah, the magic ingredient is not love. If you can’t repeat your findings, you didn’t lack intensity. You just did some junk science.
This all turns science into magic, which is shit. Sure, the Frankenstein parable is pretty much magic, since it’s based on a goddamn Greek myth…but don’t claim to champion science and then stab it in the back with a fairy tale ending.
Oh…how was the actual film, angry science nerd?
The film is visually engaging, though after seeing this style from Burton in The Corpse Bride and numerous other projects, it’s not novel in the least. I was shocked that Johnny Depp’s voice didn’t fall out of Victor’s mouth, though Burton did get Winnona Ryder to play the female lead, who is mostly absent from the plot until we need a damsel in distress.
The songs are quite good, especially since it feels that Danny Elfman had lost his ability to surprise and delight since the 1990’s. His score is moving and invigorating.
The pacing of the film is a bit of an uneven affair. The first hour speeds by, mostly because the film switches focus three times. It goes from a send up of Frankenstein to a Weird Science/Back to the Future romp about a kid trying to hide his amazing secret, to a bald homage to classic horror monster movies (even having Victor’s whole class be stand-in’s for famous actors and monsters such as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Bela Legossi.)
Fits and Starts
I wanted to like Frankenweenie. I remember the original, and the animated cartoon that it took obvious inspiration from (Family Dog, which may deserve a Movies That Ruined My Childhood episode.) The early nods to classic horror and pro-science leanings made me root for the film to be good. Unfortunately, the film just turned into a mundane monster movie. The film tries to pack as many classic monsters in as possible, and thereby turns schlocky. So much of it feels like afterthought. Victor really only interacts with his dog in the end when it dies…repeatedly. Seriously, Disney? You’re already got a reputation for killing canines for cheap emotional heft, and you allow this?
*Editor’s Note: On what grounds did Disney originally object? That an undead dog too much for kids? I can guarantee that if you gave any child a chance to turn back the clock on Old Yeller, that hound would be immortal, damn the consequences!*