Overall, I wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s certainly creative when he wants to be, but his style is so obvious and done-to-death these days that you could scratch his name off of half of his projects and no one would have to wonder for even a minute who had creative control in them. I also have a starting bias against adaptations of previously existing films and musicals (unless a significant chunk of time has passed), and I come from the school of thought that says there should be some balance between the original creator’s intent and the adaptor’s interpretation of it.
Unfortunately, Burton struggles frequently with both.
I like him best when he’s being somewhat original. When he feels the need to goth up an already-existing story, it often comes across as silly at best and eye-rollingly frustrating and insulting at worst.
So today, let’s look at a film of his that is simultaneously original and not at all, depending on how you look at it.
Frankenweenie (not to be confused with his short film of the same name) is Frankenstein meets Pet Sematary for tots, but it’s all grim greyness on the surface and no real substantive horror underneath.
You might say, “Of course. It’s a kids’ movie.” And rather than rant incessantly for an hour and a half, I must ask, “Do you mean that it’s meant to be upbeat, simplistic, or that it should teach ‘morals’?”
In the former’s case….come on. It’s a black and white Tim Burton movie about a pet dying. That’s never going to be upbeat. And simplistic? Death? Yeah, right!
(And spoilers here: I’m going to skip straight to the ending. It follows the basic plot of Frankenstein, just with a dog.) If the whole point is teaching kids that death isn’t so bad, and that they should let go of their pets, then why does Sparky (Frankenweenie) come back alive at the end?
The whole point of the original book was “don’t play God.” In this version, a kid plays God, is rewarded for it (unlike in Pet Sematary), terrifies the town with his zombie pup until they bring about it second death, and then, despite an “it’s really dead for good this time” fake-out, it gets brought back yet again. Now, Victor Frankenstein and all of the other kids who want their pets brought back are validated, and they don’t ever have to come to terms with death, if they choose not to.
What sense does that make? Any message that the film was trying to teach is instantly shot in the foot, all for the sake of some studio-mandated “happy ending”.
Compare this to Pet Sematary. If we look past the more horrific elements, we have a young child who, with the help of her father, comes to understand that the people and animals she cares about will all eventually die.
Grieving is natural, but with a combination of time, distance, and good memories to cherish, wounds can heal (or at least become more bearable). Life will go on, and our time on this earth is all the more precious and meaningful because it will one day end.
In essence, life is growth. Life is change. Death is the cessation of both.
Now, taking into account the more horrific elements, both the film and the book provide us examples of “natural” death. The peace and dignity of death is then perverted because of the characters’ inability to let go – first, and more generally, by stagnation, and then by Louis Creed’s actions – resulting in both their literal and symbolic deaths.
Imagine that; a more “mature” movie has a more mature and healthy outlook on death.
The rest of Frankenweenie is the standard Tim Burton fare. The characters look and move like living corpses; their eyes practically bulge out of the sockets like a sad puppy in the process of being crushed.
If that style appeals to you, that’s fine. For me personally, I liked it and it made more sense to me in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, the latter even more so due to its social commentary.
The black and white color is a nice touch, though. It certainly feels like it’s paying homage properly. It even has Christopher Lee making a cameo as the voice of Dracula in a movie playing in the background of one of the scenes.
The characters are all decent for what they are, and I must admit, I love all of the references in their names. Fans of Beetlejuice will probably recognize Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder among the voice cast, although they are not playing stepmother and stepdaughter this time.
I’ll leave you guessing about who wrote the score.
It’s a cute film overall, if pretty derivative. Unfortunately, there is a glaring issue with the execution, and all it took to unsettle me was a few minutes at the end of the movie. Whether Burton genuinely wanted that ending or was forced to change it, it takes a solid, meaningful scene – and indeed the entire point of stories like this – and cheapens it without any indication of intentional subversion. It might quiet your kids down after initially seeing Sparky die, sure, but it could also raise more questions than it answers.
But then again, your kids probably shouldn’t be learning about death only from T.V. and movies anyway.
*None of the pictures (except for the bumper card at the beginning) used in this article belong to me.