Tim Burton endeared himself to morbid goth teenagers forever when, in 1993, he put his name to The Nightmare Before Christmas. He didn’t actually direct it (the marvellous Henry Selick did), he only devised the characters and plot, but it was enough for him to be elevated to hero-status for pale, dark-clothed Korn fans around the world; Nightmare continues to enjoy a line of lucrative merchandising to this day. Burton needs to ready himself once more for a generation of adoring fans wearing black lipstick and studded bracelets as his latest, Frankenweenie, is sure to appeal to the same crowd, featuring as it does spindly weirdo characters that wouldn’t look out of place in Halloweentown, and tapping into themes of death and the macabre. It even features a school kid known only as Weird Girl.
Victor Frankenstein’s only friend is his ugly dog Sparky, and they spend all their time together in Victor’s attic making amateur horror films and doing science experiments. He is the weird loner of so many Burton films, the clever guy who is ostracised for being too inquisitive. Only in the world of Frankenweenie everyone is a weird outsider, from the Eastern European teacher Mr Rzykruski (voiced to great effect by Martin Landau) to the hunchbacked outcast Edgar. It’s a town full of misfits, and one senses that Burton has put a lot of himself into some of these characters, especially Victor, who we first see editing a home-made film. The plot kicks off when, during a father-enforced baseball match, Sparky gets hit by a car and dies. Victor is devastated, but having been inspired by Rzykruski he brings his dog back to life. However, reanimated canines are quite difficult to keep quiet about, especially in the small community Victor lives in.
Shot in crisp black and white, and packed with references to old school horror (a turtle, brilliantly, is called Shelley), Frankenweenie is closest in tone to Burton’s classiest film Ed Wood: it’s rooted in film lore; wears its influences on its sleeve; and is clearly made with great love and care. The fact that it is done in stop-motion, that most infamously time consuming of mediums, further adds to the commitment on display here. This feels, for the first time in years, as though Burton actually cares about the film he is making (unsurprising, given how this is a remake of his early short film of the same name that got him fired by Disney). When his last few films have almost felt as though Burton is parodying himself, it’s refreshing to see something that is clearly close to his heart and that demands time and effort.
It’s a shame, then, that the film doesn’t entirely work. Sparky is an incredible creation: never anthropomorphised, he moves and sounds exactly like a dog should. Despite being a hugely unattractive dog, it is easy to see why Victor loves him so much; the heart and soul of the film undoubtedly belongs to Sparky. But the humans fail to match the brilliance of the dog at the centre of it all; their designs are all a little forced, so noticeably WEIRD and DIFFERENT that they don’t really register as real characters at all. They are all either stick thin and pointy or obese to the point of ridiculousness, but that seems to be the only flair that has gone into the character design. Nothing really registers beyond the fact that everyone is a bit odd. The voice acting is somewhat lacking, too. Catherine O’Hara‘s Weird Girl is the hilarious exception, but, crucially, Victor himself is a dull, uninteresting presence, Charlie Tahan‘s voicework being almost irredeemably flat. His friend Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) is just exceptionally annoying.
Similarly, the world they inhabit has little to remark about other than the fact it’s shot in monochrome. New Holland is familiar Burton territory – neatly ordered suburbia hiding bizarro personalities behind the whitewashed walls. As such, it all feels a little passé, and, criminally, a little boring. The result is a concoction of weirdness that fails to truly register on the levels it is aiming for. There needs to be more to a film’s aesthetic other than ‘quirky’ for it to make an impact, and Frankenweenie fails to do that. The action feels stilted, and the plot rather dry, when placed in this world that never really comes to life. Not only that but a mid-film scene shoved in there to criticise the anti-science right wing in America feels uncomfortably preachy, making for a tonal shift that rings false. The final act, thankfully revolving around the ever excellent Sparky, shows the heart that could have been there, but everything that precedes it always feels one beat short of a good rhythm.
Frankenweenie is oddly flat and not nearly as all out entertaining as that other stop-motion horror homage Paranorman; the human characters are rather one note, and the shifts in tone don’t quite work. But a moody atmosphere, some decent jokes and an amazing dog at the centre mean that not only is this Burton’s best film since Big Fish, it’s also going to attract a legion of hardcore fans who will wear oversized Sparky t-shirts and backpacks in the shape of Weird Girl’s head.