The opening few minutes of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie are magical. The little kid, Victor, makes a home monster movie, with his pet dog Sparky dressed up as a Godzilla-style giant monster in a model town. The celebration of DIY B-movie film-making feels very personal, and probably autobiographical.
And then the rest of Frankenweenie feels lacking in the sort of chaotic joy that Burton celebrates in Victor's home-made film. Frankenweenie never quite gives you the feeling of Burton tossing all his toys into the air with sheer glee, even when the plot reaches its over-the-top climax. Spoilers ahead...
Actually, it's not really possible to spoil Frankenweenie — if you've seen the trailers, you've pretty much seen everything that happens in this film. Anything that isn't covered in the trailers is stuff that will come as no surprise to people who've seen other kid-friendly animated comedies.
Frankenweenie started its life as a short film, which Tim Burton made in 1984 (and which famously helped get him fired at Disney, which produced this new version.) And the new full-length theatrical version of Frankenweenie feels... exactly like a short film that's been padded out to 90 minutes. The basic story of Frankenweenie still feels like the perfect material for a short subject, but making it movie-length requires adding a lot of subplots, many of which go nowhere.
And the basic story of Frankenweenie is pretty charming. In a nutshell, Victor's beloved dog is killed, and Victor brings him back to life using weird science. Amazingly, it works — but then Victor has to hide the fact that he resurrected his dog, and wacky mayhem ensues.
There are some funny gags involving the undead dog running around. There are also a few genuinely heartwarming moments, here and there. The stop-motion animation includes some lovely visuals. Burton has a lot of fun doing pastiches of the kinds of science fiction "B" movies he previously celebrated in the far superior Ed Wood. Frankenweenie is definitely more kid-friendly than some other Burton films, and might be an okay way to introduce your spawn to Burton's silly horror-comedy aesthetic.
A ton of subplots are added to the mix, including: 1) Victor's dad pressuring him to be more normal and play baseball. 2) The townspeople turning against Victor's beloved Russian science teacher for being too weird and science. 3) The other kids in Victor's science class being competitive about trying to win the school science fair — which is what leads to a somewhat out-of-nowhere "monster rampage" sequence that closes out the film and is quickly swept back under the rug. 4) Victor has a random love triangle between the weird blonde girl and the weird dark-haired girl, in which the weird dark-haired girl is clearly preferable because she's gothier and her dog looks like the Bride of Frankenstein.
One huge problem with trying to expand Frankenweenie from a short film to a feature: Victor's motivation is over as soon as he resurrects his dog. He's already gotten what he wants, and his only desire from there on out is to keep his newly revived dog safe, which isn't enough of a challenge, really. All the really intense stuff that happens in the second half of Frankenweenie comes from other characters.
So a lot of the stuff that Burton added to make Frankenweenie a full 90 minutes has to do with fleshing out Victor's status as a young outcast — and it's here that Frankenweenie really stumbles. At no point in Frankenweenie do you really feel that Victor is ostracized or oppressed — his neighbor, the Mayor of New Holland, is a little bullying and obsessed with tulips and Dutch Day. And as I mentioned, Victor's dad gives him a little chat about how life is full of compromises, and makes Victor play baseball once. All of the other kids in the town seem at least as weird as Victor — and by the end, Victor seems positively normal compared to the other kids.
So I came out of Frankenweenie wondering if Burton had forgotten what it actually felt like to be a weird kid in a small town, and not fit in. Like, maybe at this point the memories of that aloneness have faded or turned into mere anecdotes. Or maybe Frankenweenie just proves that it's difficult to revisit work you created at the start of your career and breathe new life into it. Or else, that it's natural to outgrow the themes you explored in your early work.
As a horror-comedy, Frankenweenie is sometimes pretty fun, but ultimately feels like it's stretching a few jokes past their laugh-by date. (I think maybe Burton's sense of humor just isn't working for me that much any more.) And it doesn't really have much to say about the love of a boy for his dog after a while. As an homage to classic science fiction and horror films, it feels like a return trip to the territory he explored in the far superior Ed Wood.
Bottom line: The feature film version of Frankenweenie is something that I would highly recommend Netflixing six months from now and watching with all your friends — but it's not necessarily something you need to spend movie theater money on.