To say that Frankenweenie is the best Tim Burton movie in a long time is pretty faint praise, but to be fair it’s a pretty faint movie. An engaging first act mixed with some diverting action at the end creates a movie that feels light and airy and without much depth. I’d say this is the kind of movie Burton could make in his sleep, but we’ve seen the movies he makes in his sleep and they’re much, much worse than Frankenweenie.
The stop motion animation and character design are both delightful; the craft on display is top notch. And the film’s enthusiasm for the multiple monsters that show up at the end is infectious. Hell, the entire film has a sense of fondness for monsters and monster movies that is warm, if sleepy.
The central relationship of the film is between young Victor Frankenstein and his dog, Sparky. Victor is a kid growing up in the strange town of New Holland, which has major thunderstorms every night and where his classmates are a motley hodge podge of weirdos based on the likes of Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye. When Sparky gets run over by a car, Victor is bereft - until he thinks to harness the nightly storms to bring the dog back.
That’s the nice first act. From there Victor’s classmates - all competing in a science fair - discover his reanimated secret and attempt to recreate the feat. They succeed, but their results are not as loving as Victor’s. That’s the nicely done climax; everything getting from raising Sparky to that finale is limp and uninteresting and aimless.
The ending of the movie is also a mess; the film reverses itself on its main message right at the very conclusion. It’s like Burton and screenwriter John August were afraid to go through with anything that might have emotional resonance, meaning or be a useful way for kids to understand the world around themselves. It’s probably one of the biggest cop out endings I’ve seen in a long time.
If the movie had finished strong I would have forgiven much of the weakness in the middle. Frankenweenie references a ton of films, ranging from Bride of Frankenstein to Ghoulies (seriously), but it never panders. Every reference is organic and loving and works in the context of the scene - the movie never stops dead to jab you in the ribs (it does stop dead to deliver a pro-science, anti-Creationism speech delivered by Martin Landau’s Vincent Price-esque teacher, but who can complain about that in a kid’s movie?). This is how you homage, by working an An American Werewolf in London transformation sequence in a scene that needs a transformation sequence.
The strangest thing about Frankenweenie, the thing I can’t wrap my head around yet, is the fact that Victor is the most normal kid in a class of absolute freaks and weirdos. The standard Burton trope is the weird kid proving how monstrous the ‘straight’ community is (and there’s some of that here), but Burton comes very close to demonizing the outsiders here. Although I guess a normal person is the outsider in a town of weirdos.
Lovely to look at and gentle in spirit but meandering and empty, Frankenweenie would be a disappointment if it came from Tim Burton pre-Planet of the Apes. Now it feels like a hopeful bud of possibility.