Film Review: Frankenweenie

Tim Burton's black-and-white, stop-motion expansion of his 1984 short about another young Frankenstein and his reanimated canine has initial charm but suffers from overkill in the final act.

Talk about making amends. In 1984, the young Tim Burton directed a live-action short for Disney called Frankenweenie that was promptly shelved because it was considered too disturbing for a family audience. Depending on which source you read, Burton was either fired or quit the studio. But after he delivered to Disney a billion-dollar blockbuster called Alice in Wonderland in 2010, the Mouse House surely felt indebted enough to let the veteran director return to his roots and make the full-length, stop-motion-animated movie he had envisioned all along.

For half of its running time, Frankenweenie the feature retains the quirky charm of Burton’s early shorts, but bigger is not necessarily better in this instance. Working with his frequent screenwriting collaborator John August (Dark Shadows, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Burton has expanded the original story to incorporate a fond, frantic homage to monster-movie mayhem. Genre aficionados will likely be amused by the third-act tumult and the film-buff references, but charm gets kicked to the curb.

Much of that initial charm stems from the movie’s depiction of the bond between young Victor Frankenstein and his dog Sparky, inspired by Burton’s own childhood relationship with a family pet. A budding filmmaker and inventor who keeps to himself, Victor is encouraged by his dad to get outside and join the baseball team—a social breakthrough that leads to tragedy when Sparky is struck by a car and killed while chasing his master’s home-run ball. Inspired by his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski’s lecture on electricity, Victor digs up Sparky’s body and tries shocking the pooch back to life. In a direct visual homage to James Whale’s 1930s film classics, the experiment is a success.

So far, so good. But once his classmates discover Victor’s secret, they attempt their own reanimation projects with various pets—and that’s when all hell breaks loose, both visually and narratively. Trouble is, these secondary characters are so sketchily developed, their individual stories aren’t nearly as engaging as the central one between Victor and Sparky. As imaginative as the bizarre hybrid creatures stalking Victor’s hometown of New Holland are, the chaotic climax feels like extra padding.

Still, Frankenweenie has much to recommend it. The combination of black-and-white, 3D and stop-motion animation is a novelty, and Burton’s spooky character designs are as distinctive as ever. “SCTV” greats Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short supply the voices for Victor’s parents—their straight roles—plus a number of other more eccentric characters. Young Charlie Tahan does good work as Victor, but the child standout here is Atticus Shaffer of TV’s “The Middle,” doing an amusing Peter Lorre imitation as a creepy kid named Edgar. And most entertaining of all is Martin Landau (who won an Oscar as Bela Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood), whose few scenes as the intense, Eastern European Mr. Rzykruski are the movie’s comic high points. Frankenweenie would have been a better movie with more Rzykruski and fewer monsters.