In the spooky world of Frankenweenie, not only is a seemingly average suburban town home to dark secrets-- that's pretty common for a horror movie-- but the town itself is a lot weirder than it might seem on the surface. Kids in an elementary school classroom all have thick accents from different countries, a giant pet cemetery sits on a pointed hill, and the town's devotion to its Dutch ancestry culminates in a heritage festival where a girl wears a bonnet with actual candles burning on top of it.
Those bizarre touches help make Frankenweenie feel special at first, but eventually they give way to the same, disappointing feeling about Tim Burton: that he's a guy full of quirks, but totally out of ideas. Bearing the black and white look of previous Burton animated effort Corpse Bride (which he directed), and adapted from a short film he made in the 1980s, Frankenweenie is a return to Burton's classic creepy impulses that has a lot more life than Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows, but also suffers from the narrative dead ends that have marred his recent films. A story of a boy and his dog is always going to have a certain pull, but Frankenweenie suggests a lot of interesting directions it doesn't follow, a rambunctious caper that feels more and more hollow the further you step away from it.
Our kid hero Victor (Charlie Trahan) is an endearing, inquisitive outcast, preferring the company of his loyal dog Sparky and his attic laboratory to any actual friends. His despair when Sparky is hit by a car and killed is real, and the moment he revives Sparky through some electrical trickery the best kind of kid-sized validation-- you can feel Burton, the dark kid who grew up in suburbia similar to New Holland, revealing in Victor's success. Thanks to encouragement from a supremely bizarre new science teacher with the unpronounceable name Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), all the kids in Victor's class are feeling competitive about the upcoming science fair; when word gets out that Sparky is back from the dead, Victor's oddball classmates all compete to revive their own forgotten pets, with the kind of monstrous consequences you can imagine.
There's a flirtation with the girl next door (Winona Ryder) on Victor's part and the dog next door on Sparky's, which feels mostly shoehorned in for a Bride of Frankenstein joke. More distressingly, an intriguing subplot about our cultural aversion to science--introduced in a PTA meeting where parents are outraged that Mr. Rzykruski is teaching their kids to do actual experiments-- is dropped in favor of the chaotic finale, which is fun but lacks the emotion of the film's first half. The good bits of Frankenweenie-- the well-executed jokes, the vocal performances from Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short in multiple roles, the design of the stop-motion characters-- pop up often enough that the movie feels like it's working, but especially when it opts for an emotional cop-out near the end, it reveals how little it has under the surface. As energetic children's entertainment with a twist it works fine, but Frankenweenie has the elements to go further before it settles for something that feels too familiar.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich