Tim Burton's latest is his best in nearly two decades.
What did you do this Columbus Day weekend? Unless you are a significant statistical outlier, the answer is not "went to see Frankenweenie." Tim Burton's black and white, stop-motion remake of his own 1984 short took in just $11.4 million at the box office, good for a floppish fifth place. For comparison's sake, this is barely one-third the first-weekend haul of Burton's profoundly mediocre Dark Shadows, and a hair under a 10th that of his utterly egregious Alice in Wonderland. If one adjusts for inflation (and perhaps even if one doesn't), Frankenweenie is on track to be the second-least popular of all Burton's 16 feature films.
Which is a shame, because its silly title notwithstanding, Frankenweenie is Burton's best film since 1994's Ed Wood (perhaps not coincidentally his biggest box-office bomb) or even 1990's Edward Scissorhands. Yes, this boy-and-his-undead-dog flick is a tricky sell in any number of ways. Layering the burden of black and white cinematography on top of the already niche taste of stop-motion animation was a substantial gamble. And despite an ultimately happy ending, the movie—in which the lovable, titular hound dies not once but twice—may at times prove emotionally fraught for younger viewers. (I saw it with my own kids, seven and nine years old, and there was more than a touch of sobbing.)
But the very reasons audiences have failed to flock to Frankenweenie are the reasons they ought to do so. Visually, the movie is an absolute treat: rich yet uncluttered, wonderfully evocative of the classic monster films (Frankenstein and its Universal Horror brethren in particular, but ranging outward far enough to encompass Godzilla and Gremlins) to which it offers playful homage. I didn't see the film in 3D (let alone 3D IMAX), and it was the first occasion in a good while when I regretted opting for bi-dimensionality.
As for the weepiness factor, it was (for me, if not necessarily my kids) a pleasant surprise. For all his technical mastery, Burton is a chilly, clinical director—a trait that has only been accentuated by his recent projects with Johnny Depp, which have come to feel like an extended exercise in weirdo one-upsmanship. It's ironic that one needs to go back to Burton's earliest collaborations with Depp (again, the two Edwards: Scissorhands and Woods) to find the last protagonists for whom the director managed to convey genuine affection.
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To that all-too-brief list may now be added Sparky, the adorably reanimated canine hero of Frankenweenie ("voiced," in another clever nod, by Frank Welker, the mouth behind Scoobie Doo, among many others). The tale is a simple one. After Sparky is run over by a car in the nameless suburb he calls home, his odd but amiable teenage owner, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), works his way through the customary familial script: a touch of grave robbery; some imprecise needlework; the donning of goggles and rubber gloves; a platform lifted skyward in the midst of a thunderstorm; and, zap, Sparky lives (unlives?) up to his name. When a few other kids in Victor's class—all of them eager to win the upcoming science fair—learn his secret, an arms race of catastrophic pet resurrections ensues.
As noted, Frankenweenie occupies an awkward audience-space: a sure thing neither for kids nor adults, but (forgive me) pure catnip for those, like myself, who find themselves at the intersection of its particular cinematic Venn diagram. Though the movie sags a bit in the middle, when Sparky finds himself temporarily confined to the attic, the early sequences and the late ones (culminating, naturally, in a showdown at a burning windmill) are a marvel, knowing and touching in equal measure. The performances (several of them courtesy of Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short, who each voice multiple characters) are all good, and in one case exceptional: Martin Landau—whose last significant Burton role, as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, netted him an Oscar—steals every one of his scenes as the notably Vincent-Price-inflected science teacher Mr. Rzykruski.
But in the end, Frankenweenie is the story of Sparky and the boy who clearly loves him so. And with all due respect to young Victor, that boy's name is Tim.