It's been almost 30 years since Tim Burton's first Frankenweenie, a short film he directed while working as an animator at Disney. Around the same time he made that short (as well as the animated love song to Vincent Price, appropriately titled Vincent), Burton's work could be seen in TRON and The Black Cauldron.
But his tenure at the House of Mouse was short-lived: Disney fired Burton after he completed Frankenweenie, the urban legend being that he made a film on the company dime that could scare children. It's funny how much cachet a billion-dollar Alice in Wonderland can buy you these days: Here's Burton back at Disney, and back with Frankenweenie, this time working on a much-larger budget.
Beyond the Hollywood back story, however, there's not much that truly stands out about Burton's latest film. It's a little softer than the short—although it might get under kids' skins from time to time—and not nearly as weird as it ought to be. The stop-motion is really average.
When there's sudden movement, the effect sinks dramatically, with an almost-clumsy manipulation of the puppets. Because Burton is loyal to his original work, this is also in black and white, but not a rich black and white that evokes emotion through the effective use of shadow and light. It's just kind of shades of gray all over the place. Compare the look of this film with the much-more-haunting (and intricate) Coraline, and the shortfalls are hard to miss.
Kid-scientist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) loves his dog, Sparky, more than anything. After the pooch is hit by a car, Victor experiments with electricity to bring Sparky back to life. It's a fairly familiar story, of course; Burton named the character Frankenstein, for crying out loud. There are even more hat tips to a genre that clearly influenced a young Tim Burton—a character named Elsa van Helsing (combining the iconic Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester, with the equally iconic vampire hunter from Dracula), for example. Will kids get any of that wordplay? Doubtful, so consider these winks to the adults, who probably won't find them all that amusing.
Screenwriter John August, who has worked with Burton a few times, most notably on the director's last great film, Big Fish, weaves some of Victor's story through that most estimable rite of passage of junior high—the science fair. When square-peg Victor reanimates his dog, suddenly everyone wants in on the action, leading to a number of science-fair projects that go absolutely haywire.
Martin Landau, who creepily inhabited the dried husk of Bela Lugosi in Burton's Ed Wood, portrays a Lugosi-esque science teacher who encourages Victor's boundless imagination. It's great to hear his nuanced work here; cartoons are not known for their subtlety. Meanwhile, Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara take it the other direction, voicing multiple characters each, and usually to the hilt. Unfortunately, the work of those three artists is pretty much where the fun stops in Frankenweenie.
Burton is afraid to step on the gas here, like he's driving in an unfamiliar part of town. This film could be stranger and more malevolent, even by Disney standards, but it's purely ABC Family stuff.
Burton has been struggling with finding the target for a while. Big Fish was nine years ago, and the last inspired thing in Burton's gothic comfort zone that holds up was Sleepy Hollow. Even before that, his bad movies were at least interesting. Now they're just tame, or self-parody, or both.
Some kid scientist better come along and reanimate Tim Burton before it's too late.