Back when I was an art student, I often came up with concepts that exceeded my talent. I shot photographs and painted canvases that looked a lot better in my head than I was able to pull-off armed with what I’d been taught. As I continued on and learned new techniques, I often thought about revisiting these ideas – especially where my photography was concerned. Obviously Tim Burton is a much more gifted artist than I ever was, but perhaps he too felt like he was ill-equipped to tell the story he told at the beginning of his career. With that in mind, I can’t possibly blame him for wanting to revisit the idea.
Based on Burton’s 1984 short film, FRANKENWEENIE is the tale of a boy named Victor. He’s a curious and creative sort, a lad who loves directing his own movies and screening them for his parents. Being the odd duck that he is, Victor only has one real friend in his hometown of New Holland: his dog Sparky.
However, one sad day, Spraky gets hit by a car, and Victor loses his best friend. While deeply grief-striken, Victor goes on about his life and tries to stay on top of his studies. When his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, performs an experiment re-animating a frog with electricity, Victor gets an idea. That night, under stormy skies, he exhumes Sparky’s body and brings him back to life.
While Victor is overjoyed to be reunited with Sparky, he realizes that his community and his classmates aren’t going to handle the news of the dog’s resurrection all that well. Thus his days quickly become an uphill battle of keeping his furry friend’s new lease on life a secret.
An interesting theme within FRANKENWEENIE is the theory that Mr. Rzykruski floats; That science is neither good nor bad, but it can be used for both. It is of course a theme that is central to the inspiration for this story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it’s a theme that continually needs to be revisited. We’re in an age where scientific advancements are making so many uneasy. There are times where the unease is warranted, and times where it isn’t. That wise science teacher wants to remind both those pursuing scientific advancements, and those looking on of the need to be respectful and patient.
Respect and patience is what the community and the students struggle with, as do many who stare over the edge of uncertainty. The community is a conservative one. Even as the science is being explained to them, they are in no mood to accept it. One would like to see this calamity as a fiction contained to the town of New Holland, but sadly that isn’t the case.
Then there’s the students, who all clamour around the possibilities when they learn what Viktor has done. They have the respect for the science that their parents do not – not just believing in the possibilities, but whole-heartedly embracing it. Unfortunately, what they gain in respect, they lose in patience. They want fast results, not caring a lick for the consequences. They fly too high on shoddy wings and cause a lot of carnage as they fly too close to the sun. Thus the second moral of the story: Just because you accept the possibility doesn’t mean the morality has been settled.
FRANKENWEENIE grafts all of this on to a rather charming film that is not without flaw. There is a wonderful look and warmth to this movie. There are all sorts of loving references to the great horror stories of the past, and all of them are woven wonderfully into this suburban utopia. What helps everything along is that for all of the artistry, philosophy, and legacy, it’s all anchored by a boy and his love for a dog. Few movies have ever gone wrong with that at their centre. Unfortunately, the film misses a chance to teach some real lessons about mortality and loss, and I can’t help but think that walking down that path would have given the film the weight it needed to turn into something special.
In reviewing this film, one has to examine where it fits in with Tim Burton’s career and what it means to his current trajectory. While I haven’t wailed on Burton as much as many others, I have to admit that his work has largely been at a lower level over the last ten years. I’d like to believe that FRANKENWEENIE signals the beginning of a return to form. It nods and winks at what made Burton a name, even if it doesn’t push him too hard creatively. Perhaps at this stage of the game, revisiting FRANKENWEENIE was what Burton needed. In order for him to move forward and capture viewers imagination again, he needed to go back to what caught their attention in the first place. It might seem like a fading musician releasing an album of their big hits rearranged as acoustic numbers, but Burton makes the best of it.
He delivers something charming, if not challenging. The trick will be moving forward from here.