Director Tim Burton returns to his visceral dark roots with Frankenweenie, a animated film that features all the dark, brooding themes he is famous for, in what would seem like an opportunity for the story teller to deal with all his favourite, classical horror elements all in one fall swoop. With Disney's backing, Burton crafts a somewhat charming little film inspired primarily by Frankenstein, dealing with the artificial creation of life and how this whacks nature out of balance, although one can almost feel that his direction probably got superceded in the final moments to toe the line, given that mass market merchandising, or the lack thereof, is probably the compromise reached.
Face it, the characters here aren't really plush toy material, even though they are grotesquely beautiful to look at, with physical flaws that seem perfect. As usual, like the animated films that feature his involvement, the characters here aren't designed to be anatomically correct with their longer than usual limbs. Being in black, white and grey, it provides that old school look and hopefully elevated this film to that nostalgic status of old, ringing with the air of familiarity for elements that you've probably experienced especially if you're a classic horror movie fan.
As the story would have already been suggested by its trailer, it centers around a boy, Vincent Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) whose dog Sparky had passed away, only for Vincent, a smart boy with scientist potential, emulating his namesake to resurrect his pet dog, and succeeding. He tries to keep this undead version of Sparky under wraps, only for the antics of the dog to be discovered, and from there, having his peers, who are all vying for best science project, trying to emulate what he had done, with vastly different results.
Here's when you can see what had inspired Burton, or had been his favourites, as the story took on homage paying moments especially when the story went on its own little spree to have loads of fun. Tributes got paid to the likes of a Godzilla-wannabe, critters, and characters that were amongst the same level of recognition as Frankenstein, in addition to a whole slew of name dropping. Even the science teacher Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), looked very much and unmistakably like Burton's tip of the hat to one of his heroes, Vincent Price, who is straight talking, and providing a stinging criticism against those who are closed minded, and superstitious, clinging on to values of the old without the guts for exploration and scientific adventure. Those who follow blindly, or copying without full understanding, are also put under the spotlight, and it's little wonder how the chief reverse engineer happens to be Asian.
But it's not all formula, facts and numbers. Frankenweenie, like most of Burton's films, no matter how dark they may look and feel, contains plenty of heart. While the hinted at love story between Vincent and Elsa (Winona Ryder) was almost non-existent, being but neighbours who communicate through a hole in the picket fence, it is the bond between boy and dog, and the extent one will go for the other, that moved, even if, like Frankenstein's tale, the whole world goes after them, being some bastardized by product of nature. But outside of these two characters, the support cast was woefully one-noted, and largely wallpaper.
While this film marks the umpteenth time that Burton has had Danny Elfman score his film, it is with a heavy heart, as a fan of their partnership, to listen to moments that seem lifted from their Batman score, and being repeated so obviously during the film's finale that you'd wonder if Elfman had finally run out of steam with the lack of inspiration in coming up with new tunes that dance around similar themes. I guess one can only recycle to a certain degree, before being dangerously left exposed.
I had enjoyed the quirky tales and characters that Tim Burton had the knack to conjure in his mind, but Frankenweenie, despite being nice to look at with moments that will touch your heart, as a whole still felt as an unfulfilled potential. One can only hope Burton's next effort will be as inspirational as his earlier ones.