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Dustin Putman

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Frankenweenie  (2012)
2 Stars
Directed by Tim Burton.
Voice Cast: Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell, Dee Bradley Baker, James Hiroyuki Liao, Frank Welker.
2012 – 87 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements and scary images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 3, 2012.
There was a stop-motion animated picture that came out only a couple months ago that spoke about an unlikely topic for a so-called "family film"—death—and did it in such a way that was informative, truthful, eloquent, and ultimately comforting. Its name was "ParaNorman," and it treated audiences with the respect they deserved. In contrast, the thematically comparable "Frankenweenie" is irresponsible and insulting in the way that it takes great pains to, quite correctly, rail against messing with the natural order of things before hypocritically contradicting itself in the end. Thus, what might have been a tough but valuable educational tool on top of being a quirky entertainment for all ages misses its own point completely. To falsely sugarcoat the concept of mortality in such a way is a stark misjudgment that damages the film to an irreparable degree. Director Tim Burton (2012's "Dark Shadows") made the same mistake with his 1984 live-action short of the same name, and he would have been wise to correct it for this stretched-too-thin expanded version.

The old adage that dog is man's best friend is very much the case for young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who is practically inseparable from his pet dog Sparky (Frank Welker). Casting the pup in his home-made movies and generally never away from him for longer than the school day, Victor is devastated when Sparky runs into the road to retrieve a ball and is hit by a truck. His mother (Catherine O'Hara) and father (Martin Short) try to comfort him over the death, telling their son that Sparky will forever live in his heart. "I don't want him in my heart," Victor replies. "I want him here, with me." When school teacher Mr. Rzykruski's (Martin Landau) shows his students how a twinge of electricity can cause muscular twitches in a dead frog, Victor wonders what might happen with a whole lot of electricity. It's a crazy idea, but before long he has dug up Sparky and taken him into the attic for a science experiment during a lightning storm. Lo and behold, Sparky does return to life—albeit with body parts that keep falling off. Victor tries to keep Sparky a secret, but hunchbacked classmate Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer) catches sight of the resurrected dog and has soon spread the news all over school. What follows is a "be careful what you wish for" parable complete with a whole town overrun by scientific abominations that should never have been.

Filmed not only via stop-motion animation, but also in lush, dramatic black-and-white to mirror the Universal monster movies of the 1930s, "Frankenweenie" is a gift for anyone who can appreciate the pure artistry of this meticulous brand of filmmaking. If a lot of thought and care went into its crisp aesthetics, it also warrants being said that the slightly askew suburban town of New Holland, complete with a sprawl of neighborhood homes and streets sitting in the shadow of a looming, foreboding structure on a hill—the subject of urban legend—is stolen wholesale from Burton's own 1990 fantasy "Edward Scissorhands." In the earlier movie, it was an old mansion where an inventor created a man, but passed away before he could give him hands, and here it's a rustic windmill, the alleged site of an abandoned gold mine. One can also bet that both films climax at this spot, harkening back to the image of rioting townspeople with torches who have come to destroy the outsider/witch/creature, take your pick. It is a tad shameless for two separate projects from the same director borrowing so heavily from one another, and even worse that one—"Edward Scissorhands"—led to a bittersweet, beautifully poetic ending, and the other inferior one leads directly into the fatal error that ruins the pic's lasting impression.

In adapting a 30-minute short into an almost 90-minute feature, screenwriter John August (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") has wandered too far away from what "Frankenweenie" should be about: a simple, touching love story between a boy and his dog. Once out of material to fill up the middle forty-five minutes, August turns to plainly aping (we'll politely use that word instead of "copying") everything from "Godzilla" to "Gremlins" as New Holland is run rampant with on-the-loose creatures and the viewer completely loses track of Victor and Sparky. Also a missed opportunity: doing more with the intriguing Elsa Van Helsing, voiced by Winona Ryder (2011's "The Dilemma"). She is a lonely classmate living next door to the Frankensteins and figures prominently in a scene in the finale, but Elsa and Victor never develop a substantial friendship of any sort and she just sort of lurks along the fringes, unexplored.

Unlike in 1989's cautionary horror film "Pet Sematary," Sparky returns to life basically his old self, albeit with gradual decomposition, but the older audience members know that what Victor has done goes against mother nature. Sure enough, the ending returns "Frankenweenie" to its roots, with Sparky accosted by the angry citizens as an undead atrocity until he puts himself on the line to save one of their own. How things develop from here will go unmentioned, except to say that the final moments are a slap in the face to anyone who has been watching the previous hour and a half and taking in its messages. In forcing a happy-go-lucky, wine-and-roses ending onto material that demands otherwise, Tim Burton has done a disservice to his audience—particularly children, who will walk away from the film believing that death has no consequence and they, too, can and should bring their pet back to life after it dies. Parents are going to have a lot of explaining to do after this one. To turn off the sound, forget the story and drink in the sights, "Frankenweenie" is a delight. It is everything else, dishonest and misguided in the extreme, that gets in the way.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman