The boy who powers the emotional heart of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan). Victor is a film nerd of the classic persuasion. The film opens with a creature feature shot by Victor with his beloved dog Sparky as the main attraction. Victor is more or less friendless, though not ostracized. It’s just that his classmates are a little on the creepy side and he’d rather hang out with boy’s best friend than chat up the weird girl (the always welcome Catherine O’Hara, who also voices Victor’s Mom and the Sue Sylvester-esque Gym Teacher) whose cat has scat-related premonitions. A tragic accident gets Sparky killed and the boy succumbs to utter despair.
In school the next day, the exciting new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) sparks—har har—an idea in Victor’s triangular little head. With a little ingenuity, a dash of elbow grease, and whole lotta what-the-hell-why-not, he creates a fabulous contraption that would impress even Rube Goldberg. Turns out all you need to bring the dead back to life is a bolt of lightning, tears of love, and your mother’s waffle iron. Victor tries to keep his re-animated pet a secret, but dogs will be dogs and evil little punk classmates will alway figure out how to screw you over. The kids set their sights on winning the school science fair, with monstrous results – yeah, I know, I’ll stop now. There’s also a terminally quiet neighbor girl (Winona Ryder) with a Bride of Frankenstein poodle who turn up as the quasi love interests/damsels in distress.
Oh, Tim Burton. I don’t care if he spends the rest of his career making fifty different versions of Dark Shadows. After Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Mars Attacks! (shut up, don’t judge me), he’s more than earned permanent residency in Awesome Town. Say what you will about Burton, but Frankenweenie is a great film. The original 1984 short he made, I mean. The embiggened 2012 version is just sort of alright. You know what would make it great? Cutting it down to a 30 minute short. Even at a slight 87 minutes, there were long stretches of time where the main characters just disappeared and we were stuck watching the tertiary characters—of which we know absolutely nothing about—engage in actions whose consequences set up the third act.
When Burton made the original Frankenweenie as a 30 minute short in 1984, it cost him his job at Disney. Ultimately, most of the stuff in the remake outside of that original premise feels like inconsequential padding. Everything around Victor and his canine corpse amounts to packing peanuts: simultaneously irritatingly necessary but redundantly pointless.
The biggest hinderance was—and it kills me to say this—the stop motion puppets. I love stop motion animation. Seriously. Ray Harryhausen is one of my heroes. You can’t tell me that the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts isn’t one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history and expect to live through the night. I’ve a Pavlovian response to instantly fall in love with anything stop motion animation. So when I get troubled by it, it’s a bad sign. The puppets were great, and the animation clunky-in-an-obvious-but-intentional way, but it’s really hard to emotionally connect to a character when they show absolutely no emotion in their face. Victor can sob all he wants over his dog’s corpse, but when his face stays as still as Sparky’s tombstone it’s a lot harder to elicit the same response from your audience.
Nobody hates mid-century suburbia more than Tim Burton. Considering he grew up in Burbank, CA, I can’t say that I blame him. But at least he had Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Max Schrek to ease the soul-killing boredom of identical ticky tacky little boxes inhabited by small-minded people of little experience and no desire to explore the world beyond their cul-de-sac. Frankenweenie is pretty much as personal as Burton could get without having an E! reality show camera crew follow him around. (Side note: I would so totally watch the hell out of that show. Get on it, Seacrest!) The whole film feels like one massive love letter to classic horror films written by a madly obsessed film geek. Not a single frame goes by without a line or sight gag lovingly paying homage to some practically-forgotten monster movie.
Frankenweenie is, on first glance, a cute movie about a boy who missed his dead dog so much he brought it back to life. And a lot of movie-goers won’t take away much more than that. Unless you’re the kind of nerd who actively searchs out movies like Gamera and the 1931 Frankenstein then you aren’t going to have a frame of reference for why it’s so funny that Victor’s “enemy” is a hunchback with a terrible lisp named Edgar “E” Gore, that Victor’s parents were watching Horror of Dracula during a romantic evening in, or that the mad science teacher looks and sounds like an especially malevolent Vincent Price. For most of the audience—especially kids who aren’t lucky enough to have a film nerd grown-up in their lives—the references aren’t going to be anything more than something silly and weird to look at. And you have no idea how much that depresses me.
tl;dr: Frankenweenie is light fun for 90% of you, and OMGFILMGEEK for the rest of us, and just go see it anyway because I’d give anything to get stop motion animation to replace the uncanny valley of hell that are Dreamworks CGI kids’ movies.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.