Barely a pulse
Cool stop-action visuals aren’t enough to bring Tim Burton’s horror homage to life
In 1984, director Tim Burton smelted his gold ticket to Hollywood with a live-action version of Frankenweenie, a half-hour homage to the Universal horror films of the ’30s and ’40s filtered through a suburban eye. And over the past nearly 30 years, he’s been getting a lot of juice out of that shtick. Although in a pop-culture milieu that has mainstreamed all things ghoulish he has become increasingly irrelevant as he churns out candy-colored reboots of old childhood faves.
But, as if to remind everyone who is still paying attention that he hasn’t always worked with a Skittles-based palette, Burton has exhumed his old friend, put it back on the slab, added some new pieces and tried to bring the beast back to life. Sadly, his screenwriter (frequent collaborator John August) lacks the narrative juice to entirely pull it off as he shoves an extra hour of stuffing into a half-hour cooked goose.
The basic premise remains the same: Young Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan) is living in a stop-motion universe somewhere between the worlds of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, a monochromatic suburbia populated by spindle-legged figures with large eyes. Although his school seems to be made up of kindred spirits of the morbid variety, Victor prefers to devote his time exclusively to his dog Sparky.
As with the source material, that friendship is sorely tested when Sparky is flattened by a car while chasing a ball. Fortunately, on the curriculum the next day the science teacher (Martin Landau again channeling Bela Lugosi’s voice, although this time by way of a caricature of Vincent Price) shows the class how to make a dead frog’s legs kick with the help of electricity. The frog doesn’t jump off the plate and start singing “Hello! Ma Baby,” but a light bulb does spark to life over Victor’s head. He scuttles off to the pet cemetery, disinters the pieces of Sparky and returns to his attic space stocked with dumpster analogs of the equipment from the lab of Bride of Frankenstein and stitches ol’ Sparky back together and sends him up into the sky to ride the lightning. A slash of light and a crash of thunder later and it’s alive! Alive!
Cue the eventual arrival of villagers with torches and add to the mix a subplot about Victor’s classmates competing for a science-project trophy. Stealing Victor’s idea of reanimation, they contribute a giant turtle, Gremlin-esque rampaging sea monkeys and all sorts of other creepy critters to the running time.
Admittedly, all this is sort of fun visually and is probably a perfect matinee for morbidly inclined toddlers, although most of the references to classic horror films will go over their itty-bitty little skulls.
Nonetheless, since the movie is about 75 percent homage, 25 percent story and offers weak jokes that don’t really have punch lines, it makes for a vaguely unsatisfying bit of déjà vu all over again.