In early ‘80s, Tim Burton worked as an animator for Disney. He wasn’t very good at fitting into the Disney mold, so instead of working on major productions, he was relegated to making short films based on his own ideas. During this period he made two excellent short films, Vincent and Frankenweenie, which held the distinction of being absolutely unlike anything Disney had ever produced before. Thirty years later, Burton has dusted off the old property to make a feature length film which is almost identical to every other Tim Burton movie made in the past couple of decades.
If you’ve seen Burton’s original short film, then you already know then basic plot of this movie. Young Victor Frankenstein, who apparently lives in the same Baby Boom-era community as the family from Edward Scissorhands, sets out to resurrect his beloved pet, Sparky, after the dog is struck by a car. He digs up Sparky, stitches him back together, and revives him through the use of a set up similar to the iconic lab used in James Whale’s classic adaptation of Frankenstein. Of course, instead of seeing Victor’s accomplishment as a miracle of science, the conservative, narrow-minded townsfolk view the dog as an unholy abomination. Misunderstandings and hijinks ensue.
On the upside, Frankenweenie is the most heartfelt film to come from Tim Burton since 2003’s Big Fish. Clearly the original film about a boy longing for his deceased dog touched on a subject that meant a lot to the director, and that honest emotion still manages to come through in spots. Even better, the film utilizes stop-motion animation, which has always been Burton’s strong suit. In short, Frankenweenie isn’t exactly another case of Tim Burton running purely on auto-pilot, which is what we got with Dark Shadows earlier this year.
And yet, with this feature length movie, there’s that same tale of mixed woe and superiority that, coming from Burton, has become so excruciatingly familiar. Young Victor, like the protagonists of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, etc. is utterly special and unique. In fact, he’s so more enlightened than all of the ignorant, Bible-thumping people of his town, that they simply cannot comprehend him. Ultimately, he overcomes their ignorance and prejudice by proving to everyone just how superior he is.
Now, I’m not saying Tim Burton invented this plot—he didn’t, it’s as old as literature—but this same basic story has been repackaged by Burton so many times over the past thirty years that it reeks of vindictive autobiography. The pale, reclusive hero with unkempt black hair never fails to outwit the myopic middle class. Precious Tim Burton, likely bullied and ostracized as an oddball goth during his formative years, simply can’t resist rubbing everyone’s noses in how successful he is. And that was fine…for the first two decades of his career. Now we’re entering decade four of Tim Burton’s career, and he still hasn’t found a new song to sing.
Part of me wants to acknowledge that Frankenweenie is a fine film in its own right, and then another part of me wants to tell Tim Burton, who is well over fifty years old, that he’s been a popular filmmaker and a successful millionaire for nearly half of his life at this point and that he needs to get the fuck over whatever indignities he suffered as a kid. Burton ceased to be a misunderstood outsider decades ago, and this constant refrain of overbearing superiority has become increasingly grating.
I still recommend Frankenweenie to anyone who hasn’t tired of Tim Burton or to anyone with kids. It certainly isn’t as rote and cynical as Dark Shadows or Alice in Wonderland. If I had able to see the movie with fresh eyes, I suspect I would have enjoyed it more, but Frankenweenie is still another example of Tim Burton being all Tim Burton-y. The director doesn’t seem to have any new tricks up his sleeve and the sameness of all of his latest efforts has become nauseating.
At least this movie didn’t feature Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter again. I suppose that at least qualifies as a move in the right direction.