"Your dog is Aliiiiiive!"
Surely you've heard the soundbyte from 'Frankenweenie.' A hunched-over, snaggle-toothed, black and white Edgar "E" Gore, mischief in his eyes and a half-assed Peter Lorre in his voice. It's spooky and it's ooky and it's either the type of thing that you find really played-out or brings a tickle to your heart.
'Frankenweenie' serves up a new heaping plate of Tim Burton Brand Entertainment, steeped in late '50s kitsch with hausfraus in mumus, analog gadgets and theremins on the soundtrack. Expanding on his earlier short film, 'Frankenweenie' is set in New Holland, a vague and timeless suburbia of picket fences and neighbors angry about trod upon flower beds. Young, earnest Victor Frankenstein loves to tinker with his movie camera and is psyched for the upcoming science fair. His father (one of three entertaining voices from Martin Short) would rather he play baseball and suiting up for a game inadvertently leads to the death of Victor's adorable and extremely loyal dog, Sparky.
After a fearsome and hilarious lecture from science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) about the properties of lightning, a lightbulb goes off over Victor's head. New Holland, what with its windmills, is always experiencing electrical storms. Soon a James Whale-style laboratory (excuse me, laBORatory) is constructed with household gewgaws coiling and spinning and crackling. Sparky comes back to life, though wagging his tail too strongly will send it flying across the room.
Soon the neighborhood kids discover what's up, leading to a climax of resurrected pets bringing mayhem to the town. In addition to the aforementioned "E Gore," there's the weirdo girl, dopey fat kid, (somewhat) malicious Japanese kid, and lisping, dramatic kid. Tim Burton's been a hero to the disparaged for so long that he gets a pass on all the stereotyping.
Indeed, a lot of the good will toward this movie comes from our longstanding admiration for Burton. He's been mining the quarry of the slightly subversive Eisenhower aesthetic his whole career. No other artist -- not John Waters, not the B-52s not even Pee-wee Herman has been able to get so much mileage from celebrating/tweaking this world. This familiarity is very agreeable, even comforting, but I must admit it does, at times, get tired.
While 'Frankenweenie' has craft dancing all over the screen (Mr. Rzykruski's mouth!), the scenario and the writing is all very safe. It is impossible not to compare this film to the recent 'Paranorman,' similar in style and story. 'Paranorman's' characters are very current, as is the overall attitude of the film. While nostalgia is certainly part of Burton's game, earlier work like 'Beetlejuice' or 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' also had a sly dalliance with post-modernism. 'Frankenweenie' lacks this. It's all too straight and while many of the jokes are funny (or lean on codes of '50s movies for laughs) far too many of the emotional beats fall flat. There isn't enough weight to the characters to embrace them fully on their own terms, nor is the movie spazzed-out enough to compensate for this.
'Frankenweenie's' best scenes are dialogue-free, observing the undead Sparky yip around New Holland. It's fun and clever, and, you would imagine, all leading to a life lesson about acceptance. A decision is made at the end of the film that, frankly, I feel neuters the enterprise of any gravitas, but who am I to break kids' hearts?
The latter half of 2012 is truly a watershed for fans of kid-friendly stop-motion films about the undead. For this, surely, we must celebrate. Strangely, Tim Burton's take, the man whose whole career seems to have been leading to this, comes up way short in comparison to Laika's 'Paranorman.' 'Frankenweenie' is still good, but I can't help but feel that the torch has been passed.
'Frankenweenie' hits theaters Friday, October 5.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.