Tim Burton seems to run on two speeds – 1) cold-blooded yet warm-hearted, allegorical goth fairy tales that offer finely spun, darkly whimsical takes on the human condition (see: Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Ed Wood, even Sweeney Todd) or 2) sophomoric, recklessly morbid, crassly violent, meandering cinematic sketches that may start vigorously but skid to flat conclusions, running on their own self-satisfied fumes (see: Alice in Wonderland, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and, the worst of all, Mars Attacks). His other films fall somewhere along that continuum, with Beetlejuice, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and Batman Returns being the other standouts. I admit a soft spot in my heart for this past summer’s box office misfire Dark Shadows. It wasn’t really very good, but I kinda loved it.
So where does Frankenweenie fit in? Unfortunately, the film squanders a beautiful and loving and elegiac first two thirds with a third act that devolves into borderline hateful, truly unpleasant movie monster cliché (no doubt aspiring, rather, to cheeky b-movie homage…and failing). The movie tells the story of a kind but forlorn, science-obsessed boy who loses his beloved dog (and only friend) while being forced to “fit in” and play a game of baseball. By the way, I found that a telling autobiographical moment for the self-professed, long-time outcast Burton. This boy, a typical Burton anti-hero, is inspired by the aforementioned science teacher and resurrects said pooch a la Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.
The dynamic between the boy (named Victor) and his devoted pup Sparky is completely engaging and fun. Further, the supporting characters, from Victor’s next door neighbor girl (voiced by Burton mainstay Winona Ryder) to Victor’s parents (voiced by two more Burton regulars Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) are likable and interesting. As all Burton productions do, the movie borrows its aesthetic and left-of-center worldview from Edward Gorey. All of that works beautifully, reinforcing the importance of family, animals, and open-mindedness in a world that is often quick to judge and demean. The film cleverly works in conceits from the original Frankenstein and other genre works, from a villainous mayor named Van Helsing to a gloomy windmill that dominates the town’s landscape to angry villagers who are intolerant to difference of any kind…that last part added a spooky parallel to life in post-millennial America.
HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however. The film takes such a strange tonal shift in its last third that it ruins the promise of the kind-natured, delicate story-telling it had achieved to that point. Suddenly, the film veers into Godzilla/Gremlins/Pet Sematary-lite ugliness and loses the good will it engendered…for this viewer at least. Such a shame. Imagine the first hour of Edward Scissorhands jumping to the last half hour of Mars Attacks, and you will understand my disappointment.