The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"FRANKENWEENIE"

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton's 1984 Frankenweenie is one of the most brilliant short films I've ever seen. A clever retelling of the Frankenstein tale centering on a boy and his re-animated dog, the film earned Burton a lot of attention and, eventually, a gig directing Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Now, 28 years later, Burton is revisiting the tale, turning it into a feature-length, black-and-white, stop-motion animated family film. In 3-D, no less. While it lacks the wondrous sense of discovery that I felt when I watched the original short, Frankenweenie still has a lot of appeal.

This is the story of Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a kid who loves his dog Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car and killed, Victor is heartbroken. Then his creepy science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), gives a lesson about how electricity can make a frog's legs move even after the frog is dead. Victor decides that if it works with a frog, it just might work with Sparky. He creates a mini-science lab in the attic of his family home, setting it up so that Sparky's corpse will be struck by lightning during a storm. Sure enough, his beloved pooch is reanimated. Victor then has to keep what he did a secret from his parents (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short), while also dodging some mean-spirited classmates who want to exploit his discovery for their school science fair. Meanwhile, Sparky resumes his flirtation with the poodle next door.

I've always been a fan of Tim Burton's, but it's hard to deny that his recent movies have felt a little bit rote. The director has mastered the art of creating trippy visuals and maintaining off-kilter sensibilities. While many of his movies (not including the insipid Dark Shadows) have been fun to watch, as of late they have been sorely lacking the personal connection he had in some of his earlier films. Alice in Wonderland, successful though it may have been, is no Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no Ed Wood. By revisiting an idea from his past, Burton feels emotionally connected to his material and, by extension, his audience for the first time in years. The story is deeply touching, often funny, and ultimately rather poignant as a result. It's nice to feel like he's not on autopilot anymore.

Visually, Frankenweenie is magnificent to look at. The stop-motion animation gives the film an appropriately bizarre feel, which is further highlighted via the use of black-and-white photography and 3-D. Burton's attention to detail is remarkable, too. There's often just as much going on in the background as there is in the foreground. Visual puns and horror movie references can be found throughout. I highly approve of the expanded third act, which introduces an entirely new threat to the citizens of Victor's tiny town. Anyone who loves classic monster movies will appreciate the plot's twisted turn.

Frankenweenie would have benefited from additional development of Elsa (Winona Ryder), Victor's next-door neighbor who always seems on the verge of doing something important, yet never does. Same goes for his parents. And, like I said, having seen Burton's original short film a number of times, the story didn't feel new to me. (Anyone who hasn't seen it is obviously at an advantage.) Frankenweenie was still lots of fun, though. The flaws are minor, the pleasures large. Great to look at and packing an undeniably emotional punch, this entertaining film finds Burton going back to basics and coming up with a winner.

( out of four)

A Note on the 3-D: Frankenweenie makes its best use of 3-D during the scene where Victor re-animates Sparky, and also during the exciting final 20 minutes. If you like 3-D, you probably won't be sorry you ponied up a few extra bucks for it, but if you see the film in 2-D, you're not missing anything essential.


Frankenweenie is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.


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