In Frankenweenie, Tim Burton does what he does best. He unveils the macabre and lovely that lie just below the surface of the everyday, and crams more visual delight into this one movie than many of his competitors squeeze into a decade. His fluent stop-motion animation suffuses his characters with the lightness of untethered childhood, when every new idea opens incredible possibilities.
Here, too, Burton’s 3D imagining suggests new possibilities for the technology. He certainly uses it to shock, by firing body parts, pets transmuted into monsters, and graveyard cats at the audience. At the same time, he also enfolds us in the intimate landscapes of a small-town childhood, both friendly and frightening. When elementary school dreamer and aspiring scientist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) snuggles into bed, his sheets’ softness is nearly palpable. And as the school bully backs Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) into a corner, the frame tilts to concoct a claustrophobic certainty of no escape. If only the story were so compelling.
Burton brings Mary Shelley’s story into the 21st century via 1930s Hollywood and a very heavy debt to 1974’s Young Frankenstein. When Victor’s beloved dog Sparky (Frank Welker) dies under a car, the boy is inspired by a lesson on electricity to exhume the dog. Cue long, ominous shadows and eldritch wails, as he sets up a lab to re-animate Sparky by harnessing the power of a convenient electric storm. But then Sparky escapes the attic where his boy determines to hide him, and rumors of Victor’s experiment gone-right reach the most competitive and powerful kids in his class. They, too, want to harness the power of convenient electric storms to raise the dead. While mayhem should ensue, Burton instead wends down the by-ways of film history, with rapid-fire references to Gremlins, the Godzilla franchise, and any movie starring the lugubrious Vincent Price, plus a gratuitous dose of contemporary tween romance when not only the pre-pubescent protagonists but also their pets fall in love.
The pleasures of intertextuality at this level seem too tired to amuse adults while too archaic to entertain young children, many of whom, in the preview theater, stared solemnly through the movie’s attempts at humor. Here Frankenweenie displays all the superficial cleverness imperfectly masking a crisis of originality characteristic of Burton’s recent output. His films of the last decade have primarily reworked well-known source material, whether from literature, the stage or the screen. (And here he’s reworking his own 1984 live-action short, also named Frankenweenie.) In each borrowing, the price of the ever more dazzling visual inventiveness and aesthetic control seems to be a disdain for a dramatic arc that might actually intrigue his viewers.
Frankenweenie further frays the link between director and audiences. The characters friendly to Victor are willowy in the extreme, while the kids who cause trouble deviate very far from the town’s norms. Bob (Robert Capron) is short and fat. Edgar “E” Gore is short, disabled, and—perhaps worst of all in an America of stellar orthodontics—snaggle-toothed. Nassor (Martin Short) is tall and broad-shouldered with a nerdy hunch, while Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) is a dead ringer for an Asian baddie in a 1930s Hollywood B-movie. Add in the non-American accents of the latter two, and the multi-cultural, inclusive schoolyard suddenly seems like a very threatening place.
While the director might imagine such images as an homage to the black-and-white past he’s imitating, they emerge on screen as an atavistic vindication of paranoia and prejudice. The movie’s web site emphasizes the stereotypes: while Toshiaki is “over-achieving and mega-competitive” (the very caricature against which so many first- and second-generation Asian Americans struggle), Victor, equally keen on winning the science fair, is merely “clever and industrious.”
Dull and lackluster storytelling is forgivable: marginalizing and humiliating in a children’s movie those who look or sound different is not. Perhaps it is time for Tim Burton to take a sabbatical, and think about how he can match the substance of his movies to the glorious surfaces in which he delights.