After the expensive, messy dud that was Dark Shadows earlier this year, Tim Burton has stopped ripping off other people’s properties, and has now chosen to pilfer from his own oeuvre instead by remaking Frankenweenie, the project that got the young director fired from Disney in the mid-80s.
Back then, it was seen as a thoroughly unsuitable short movie to trail a theatrical re-release of Pinocchio. Now, his former employers - and successful collaborators on Alice In Wonderland - have given him $40 million to morph his original vision into a feature-length, stop-motion bonanza, tailored as a quirky seasonal tie-in that slots into a cramped Halloween schedule alongside the likes of ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania.
Little Victor Frankenstein, a science nut who lives in a picture-book American suburb, is distraught when his dog, Sparky, is run over by a car. Putting his book-smarts to use, he concocts a diabolical scheme worthy of his surname to bring his best friend back to life. But playing God with his pet’s life has dire consequences for his hometown, as all of his school-chums get in on the act, and each start their own little science projects.
Despite having a hand in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the stop-motion musical that remains a teen-goth classic, Burton’s subsequent dalliances with the artform have been tentative at best. The Corpse Bride, released the same year as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, seemed to be a respite from the bigger film’s multi-coloured chaos, almost a weekend project for Burton, regardless of the exhaustive work hours that stop-motion demands.
Likewise, Frankenweenie is something of a trifle. Despite a cheeky opening joke about 3D - Victor’s quite the fan - the film suffers from Burton’s inability to turn his obsessions into a meaningful story. He injects Victor’s tidy 90-minute tale, essentially an elongated short story, with a plethora of references and nods, from Bride of Frankenstein to Japanese kaiju flicks, but whereas B-movies and suburbia were once key components of Burton’s oddball sensibility, such pop-culture touchstones are now becoming well-worn.
Frankenweenie is certainly a beautiful film (its black and white cinematography in particular), and it’s the director’s most entertaining work in years, but when laid alongside the work of his peers (Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, for example) it is lacking in visual flair, wit and imagination. Indeed, not only is the film a rehash of a decades-old concept, but the character design of Sparky is a shameless repurposing of Burton’s contribution to the early 90s cartoon Family Dog.
Upon close reading, the title speaks volumes, both of the movie itself and Burton’s career - a career which, of late, has been made up of reanimated corpses, and now lurches forward with an unstoppable, blockbusting gait. Frankenweenie may be a perfectly fun family film, but Burton’s kooky concoction of oddball themes and pure kitsch is starting to get stale. In King Kong, it may have been beauty that killed the beast, but over-familiarity can be a more tragic death for any monster - or, it seems, director.
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