Frankenweenie REVIEW

Frankenweenie.

He's probably not going to win Crufts.


Release Date: 17 October 2012
PG | 87 minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder

Johnny Depp isn’t in Frankenweenie. Neither is Helena Bonham Carter. Alas, that’s about as radical as Tim Burton gets in this stopmotion redo of his 1984 short. Everything else about the movie is Burton in a nutshell, from the Danny Elfman score and the gorgeous production design to the fact that the story is so slight it would blow over in a moderate breeze.

Frankenweenie continues a run of very ordinary Burton movies – a sequence that started after 2005’s Corpse Bride. Sure, the auteur with the bird’s nest hairdo has made a hell of a lot of money since – somewhat unfathomably, Alice In Wonderland is the twelfth highest grossing movie of all time – but his output has repeatedly felt like the work of a filmmaker working on autopilot, a director reluctant to take risks. The quirky, offbeat sense of the macabre that felt so fresh in the days of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands now feels past its sell-by date, with a set of tired tropes wheeled out in each movie whether they fit the story or not. Burton has his comfort zone, and he doesn’t want to leave it.

Frankenweenie sees the Burton brand distilled into its purest, most concentrated form. A fortunate side-effect is that the movie looks utterly beautiful. As over-exposed and one-note as they’ve become, Burton’s idiosyncratic, weirdly proportioned character designs still have a goofy charm all of their own, straddling a line between grotesque and cute that many have tried to emulate but few can match. And Burton chic has never looked better than it does in Frankenweenie’s evocative monochrome.

The stopmotion animation is also a triumph. Modern puppets are so sophisticated and detailed that – as in Coraline – the animation has much of the slickness of CG. But every so often you see a jerky throwback to the Ray Harryhausen days – Vincent Price-esque teacher Mr Rzykruski’s mouth echoes the “Charley says…” cat in those child safety ads. It’s these imperfections which remind you that every character, every movement existed in the physical world – and that each one has been moved by hand 24 times to create a single second of film. On a technical level, Frankenweenie is a remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately, such things can only hold your attention for five or ten minutes. A movie that lasts nearly an hour and a half needs something extra, and Frankenweenie comes up rather short. Or overlong.

The original live-action Frankenweenie, made by Burton when he was a Disney staffer at the start of his career, ran at a rather more appropriate half hour. Its story of young Victor Frankenstein – a boy from picket-fenced suburbia who follows the lead of his famous literary counterpart by bringing recently-deceased pooch Sparky back to life – never felt like it left any unfinished business. Consequently, this longer version of the tale feels stretched beyond breaking point.

The main beats remain – along with some key visual cues – but the volume of unnecessary padding in between makes it hard to stay interested. The principal additions to the plot are beefed-up roles for Victor’s classmates, and their rivalry to win the class science prize that Sparky looks certain to win. Thing is – despite the fun, B-movie-inspired last reel that their competitive urges set in motion – a school competition is always going to struggle to generate the sort of peril that kickstarts great adventures. It’s hardly the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant, is it?

But Frankenweenie’s biggest crime is that it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. The voice cast, assembled from a roster of Burton veterans (including Beetlejuice’s Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder, Mars Attacks!’ Martin Short and Ed Wood Oscar winner Martin Landau) do their best with the material – particularly O’Hara and Short, who play three parts each – but there’s no zip to the script, few jokes that stick in the mind.

Filling the holes where the gags should be are homages to classic horror that verge on the excessive. Whereas Pixar has always realised that plot comes first, with parent-friendly in-jokes a bonus, here the roles have been reversed, with the genre nods leading the story. Which begs the question, who was this movie made for? A story this flimsy isn’t enough to keep adults engaged, but how many 10-year-olds are going to be applauding the genre cred of Victor playing dress-up in Colin Clive’s Frankenstein costume, or the fact that the story features a burning windmill? And will they care that Victor’s flatmates have been given horror-infused makeovers to echo genre legends like Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff? “Look mummy, that teacher looked like Vincent Price!” is a sentence that will be echoing around the cinema foyers of nowhere.

You can only hope that a film that steers so close to vanity project territory has scratched some kind of itch and closed a chapter on the “Tim Burton” phase of the director’s career. Maybe now he’ll go off and make a romantic comedy, a Die Hard-style actioner, a period drama, a sports movie, a gross-out comedy, a slasher horror… Just something a bit different. He’s made some amazing movies, but now it’s time to get out of that comfort zone. Then the words “A film by Tim Burton” will be something to get us excited once more.

Richard Edwards twitter.com/RichDEdwards

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