Victor Frankenstein hoists a cloth-covered cadaver through a skylight into a raging thunderstorm, hoping to install the spark of life into a corpse, while the camera captures every lightning crack in beautiful, Dutch-angled black and white. The joke here is that the cadaver is a dead dog, and Frankenstein is a young suburban kid. It’s not just a quickly recognizable homage, but an homage we’ve seen before, from the same director, Tim Burton, in 1984’s live-action short film of the same name, Frankenweenie.
The changes to that short are mostly superfluous; he’s added a creepy cool science teacher and a handful of memorably unattractive classmates for Victor (one resembles Karloff as Frankenstein, one is a questionable “yellow peril” Asian stereotype), but the meat of the story remains the same. Victor’s energetic dog Sparky is run down by a car, and the boy is propelled by his love of both science and his pet to bring his dog back to life.
The short gets a lot of mileage out of an undead Sparky wrecking havoc in the pristine, uniform suburban neighborhood before the dog is run out of town by an angry mob (and if you think that sounds a lot like Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, you’re dead-on). Burton and screenwriter John August keep a lot of the gags that work (you just know that poodle with a beehive is going to end up with wavy Bride of Frankenstein streaks in her fur), but the simple story of a boy and his dog becomes an all-out monster mash for better or worse, with Sparky being no more weird than the side characters like a bug-eyed girl whose cat poops out prophecies or the conniving hunchbacked kid who raises an invisible fish. Is Sparky so strange in this world that he deserves to be run out of town in terror?
There’s a strong moment when Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) gives a speech about the importance of science and experimentation, and for a bit it looks like Frankenweenie is going to be a great pro-science kid’s flick. By the film’s end that message has been all but trampled by a story in which every experiment (save for Sparky) goes horribly, horribly wrong. No matter the lip service, science causes nothing but problems for the town of New Holland, and the film suffers for its mixed message. It’s all surface, and, like Victor’s parents in the film, Frankenweenie doesn’t really mean what it’s saying.
Burton’s influences are surface level as well. When directors like Quentin Tarantino create a pastiche, there’s not only a visual understanding on display of what they are mimicking, but an understanding beyond the visual as to why the inspiring source has narrative power. Burton displays no grasp of Frankenstein beyond the black-and-white photography and intricate laboratory set dressing. It’s actually kind of fascinating in its own way how something that’s so intended to be a love letter to Frankenstein ends up being merely a nod to the way the 1932 Frankenstein film looks, with none of its themes carried over.
Do they have to be? Well, without them (or anything resembling a thematic point, really), Frankenweenie is kept from greatness, but it has enough goodness to get by. The stop-motion animation is meticulous, and the puppets and sets fill the frame in ways that are often visually stunning. The tone is gently humorous, with touches of little kid gross-out humor building to a big action-packed finale, so it works well enough as a left-of-center family movie.
And, after decades of work, that’s all Burton really seems interested in making - visually weird family films. As fans, we keep waiting on projects from him that are really hilarious or really scary or really any of the flavors that he peppers his films with, but the truth seems to be that Burton, aware that his weirdness might be a turn-off to some, softballs those elements straight down the middle, in an appeal to mass audiences. Burton will always be the strange kid living in the suburbs, wishing he wasn’t an outsider, at the very sake of the art he creates.
Frankenweenie had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, and will arrive in theaters on October 5.