There are times during Tim Burton’s stop-mation animation when he seems to me more intent in squeezing in references to horror movies than actually telling his own story. The result is a frustrating mixture at times delightful, warm and witty, occasionally very funny and sometimes a little dull.
It all starts so promisingly too. The opening sequence, like Toy Story, sees a child’s toys being used in his imagination to tell a tale. Here though the child in question is clearly Burton himself, in his alter-ego Victor, a lonely boy who spends more time in the attic making short films than playing outside. He shows his short film to his loving parents, and it’s a brilliantly realised monster movie using some of the toys featured in Toy Story, especially the green plastic soldiers. He uses special effects to create a showdown, and his only actor is his pet dog, Sparky, who is the hero of his film.
It’s a lovely homage to Burton’s own childhood and a great set-up for what follows. Victor is the clear favourite to win his school’s science project, but tragedy strikes when Sparky is run over chasing a baseball. Victor, inspired by his gloriously mad science teacher’s theories about lightning bringing life, decides to hook Sparky up during a storm and, well, guess what happens.
All the great horror films of the 20th century are here obviously Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but also Nosferatu, M, and the Godzilla features. Victor’s parents settle down in front of the TV to watch Dracula while he reanimates his dead dog. It also looks lovely, set in the world of Edward Scissorhands, here called New Holland’, and the sets and design are exemplary as ever with Burton this time in black and white. The voices are superb too, especially O’Hara as Victor’s lovely mum and also a weird girl in class, who thinks her cat can tell the future. Martin Landau though takes the honours as the fantastically gothic science teacher Mr Rzykruski, who tries to inspire the kids to think for themselves.
The real problem is a lack of pacing and it all feels strangely soulless. The final sequence where all of Victor’s classmates get wind of his idea, wire up their dead pets and unleash hell, is an overdone tribute to monster movies which is technically brilliant as it is predictable. Danny Elfman’s score is at times too intrusive and windy, and Burton’s screenplay plays the sentimental card once too often. Victor’s relationship with neighbour Elsa Van Helsing never amounts to anything, although Winona Ryder’s voicing is great, and her song at the end, sung to the townsfolk, genuinely hilarious one line celebrates modest homes at modest prices’.
Overall verdict: It’s certainly more cohesive than Burton’s Dark Shadows, and at times is a joy to behold, but ultimately Frankenweenie is little more than a tribute to the horror movies of the past which, let’s face it, have had enough references in other movies. Fun but slight.
Reviewer: Mike Martin