'Frankenweenie' Review: Tim Burton's Fond, Minor Return To Personal And Career Roots [Fantastic Fest 2012]

Frankenweenie is an unusual film, which is the sort of thing that people always used to say about Tim Burton movies. In this case it is unusual because unlike Burton films such as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, which seemed like uncontrollable explosions of the director's own childhood impulses, Frankenweenie feels like a very calculated trip back down memory lane. It's less a meander than a guided Star Tour.

To an extent, the calculated feel is pretty typical of Burton's recent output. It is also an unavoidable byproduct of the stop-motion animation employed to recreate Burton's early story of a boy who reanimates his fallen dog, Frankenstein-style. Stop-motion, particularly when using models and sets as intricately detailed as those in this film, requires meticulous planning, and while it can create stories that feel spontaneous and uncontrollable (see A Town Called Panic), Frankenweenie simply isn't that sort of film.

Instead, this is a movie about gaining control. As a return to the story idea that famously saw Burton fired from Disney, Frankenweenie is more than ever a movie about doing things right the second time, whatever the consequences may be. In Burton's case, the consequences are likely pretty good, as this is his first movie in some time that points directly to what people liked in his films in the first place. Frankenweenie is a pleasing, endearing movie, even when it fails to follow through on some of its own best ideas.

Victor (Charlie Tahan) is a reclusive young school kid who makes movies and plays with his dog Sparky, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. Actually, he makes movies with his dog, employing the pooch to play a giant monster. But his father (Martin Short) wants Victor to play sports, and an ill-fated game leads to the death of Sparky. But Victor has also been inspired by his mysterious new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), and in a flash of brilliance decides to apply science to bring Sparky back to life. His success ultimately leads to jealousy among the other neighborhood kids, and that jealousy nearly ruins everything.

Frankenweenie has many trappings of a Tim Burton film — an off-kilter view of suburbia; characters with black-rimmed eyes; a striking blonde girl who is oddly knowing; and a great many references to old horror movies. Some of these nods are expected (as when the film nods to Universal monsters and Hammer films) and some less so, as when it dips its head towards a suite of '80s titles.

And this feels like a classic Burton film with respect to the fact that Victor is a loner who has difficulty connecting with anything that isn't his dog or a movie; there's a lot in Victor's life that feels like the mythology that has built up about Burton through his movies. So it's like Burton once-removed, and that's where the self-conscious aspect comes in.

But there's a push towards some other ideas. Mr. Rzykruski voices ideas about science as a discipline, and the need to approach with love — ideas that seem counter to one another to some extent. As far as the story goes, the notion that science has to be tempered with love is something that works, but it isn't one that is pushed very far, and ultimately feels pretty incidental. And removed from the context of the film, the concept is far less convincing. But Mr. Rzykruski is the most memorable human character in the film, especially thanks to a speech given to a parent-teacher conference during which he castigates all who question science as tiny brained imbeciles — that speech is a meme about to be born, and it will thrive on the internet for years.

Eventually, as concepts are left to wither, Frankenweenie is just a monster movie, though it's a fairly good monster movie for a while. Still, other factors prevent it from being entirely satisfying. Sparky disappears for a good stretch, and the would-be love interest voiced by Winona Ryder is barely in the film, to the point where she feels like an afterthought, or at least the victim of severe trimming. And while the creatures raised by Victor's jealous classmates are clever, they're also pretty short-lived, and some of them feel like movie references more than entities that are really motivated by the film.

It is difficult to deny the appeal of the animation, however, and of the individual performances. Landau shines as Victor's teacher, but Tahan does quite well with the young Frankenstein's character. Frank Welker voices Sparky with a cute animal energy, and the dog, like all the animals in the film, is animated with a real attention to particular behavior that brings life and love to the creature. Frankenweenie is a particularly safe film for Burton, but it charms thanks to sheer wide-eyed likability, and through the good will generated as Burton uses his current Disney cred to smooth out an early career bump.

/Film score: 7 out of 10