October 6, 2012



FRANKENWEENIE:  Watch It At Home – Tim Burton Tries To Bring His Old Creation Back to Life

Tim Burton certainly can’t have planned it this way, but his new stop-motion feature version of FRANKENWEENIE serves, in a sense, as a microcosm of his career:  starting as a modestly appealing and very personal meld of his mind-set with pop culture, and becoming an increasingly frenetic and overproduced Hollywood product.

Part of the issue is the great distance pop culture itself has traveled over the past few decades (due in part to Burton’s own movies).  As everyone knows by now, the original Frankenweenie short led to Burton being fired by Disney in 1984; now the same studio is shelling out at least $200M in production and marketing costs for a full-length feature version.  What was once genuinely transgressive is now ho-hum, as work far more daring and even disturbing seems to air on cable every night.  Burton’s head is very much still in 1984 (and even earlier, as his failed Dark Shadows reboot demonstrated just a few months ago), and by now his tropes are more cuddly and familiar than shocking.

Screenwriter John August, a frequent Burton collaborator (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows) has added a mostly new third act to the story, but the premise of Frankenweenie is the same as in 1984.  Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who lives in a suburb that will look familiar to anyone who remembers Edward Scissorhands, is grief-stricken when his beloved dog Sparky dies after being hit by a car.  After his school science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) teaches the class about electricity’s effect on even dead muscles, Victor brings Sparky back to life in full Universal Pictures 1930s horror movie style.  He tries to keep the revived Sparky a secret, but eventually the neighbors find out about his existence, and they go after him with torches ablaze, before realizing he’s a hero and helping Victor bring him back to life yet again.

The original Frankenweenie established many of the motifs Burton has gone on to use repeatedly through the past 30 years, from the brilliant but outcast hero (often with a goth look, and in some sense an “artist”) to the stylized costumes, make-up and sets, to the uncomprehending “normal” people who surround the protagonist.  One can make a reasonable argument that all the supernatural high-schoolers we’ve had in the past decades from Buffy and the Scooby gang on begin with Victor and Edward Scissorhands, but as a result, there’s nothing very new or exciting about Burton retreading that same ground.  Part of the appeal of Burton’s early movies was the way his use of fantasy heightened the isolation and alienation of his main characters, up to and including Batman himself, but those characters now occupy pop culture ground zero.  This year’s ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania couldn’t have existed without Burton, but the fact is that while Frankenweenie has more of a sense of personal commitment than Transylvania, the latter is a better-engineered, funnier, lighter on its feet entertainment.

The new Frankenweenie also makes less emotional sense than the original.  While Victor’s friendlessness in 1984 felt logical, in the August script, his schoolmates are just as strange as he is, including a hunchback student who talks like Dwight Frye, a character billed only as “Weird Girl” (Catherine O’Hara, who also voices Victor’s mother among others) with tiny-pupiled eyes and a menacing cat, and the very goth Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder), Victor’s next-door neighbor, whose own dog would fit right in with Elsa Lanchester.  When these students find out about the newly-regenerated Sparky, their reaction is to bring their own pets back from the dead, so it’s not clear why Victor isn’t the most popular kid in this particular class.  Those additional pets take up the new latter section of the movie, as Burton mixes parodies of Godzilla and mummy movies, Gremlins and assorted other science-fiction thrillers with the original Frankenstein joke, to decreasing effect.

Frankenweenie is technically wonderful, with perfectly smooth stop-motion animation, beautifully intricate miniature sets, lustrous black-and-white photography and effective use of 3D.  (There is, of course, also a lush, witty Danny Elfman score.)  However, narrative has never ever been Burton’s strong point–going back to his Batman movies now, what’s truly shocking about them is their complete lack of interest in coherent storytelling–and even at 87 minutes, Frankenweenie feels labored and padded, the additional length adding only more spectacle, not depth.

Tim Burton’s movies have made, literally, billions of dollars (Alice in Wonderland alone grossed over $1B worldwide), and what once seemed like a career that would struggle for a place on the outskirts of Hollywood has become, in a word, a franchise.  Whether consciously or not, as a result Burton has boxed himself in creatively–there’s no surprise or excitement at all about what “a Tim Burton movie” is going to be.  Maybe it’s time for Burton to try a drastically different move; the most transgressive thing he could do at this point in his career would be something “normal.”

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."