3 stars out of 4
Those familiar with Tim Burton's resume will recognize "Frankenweenie" as his last short film prior to becoming a feature director. In the 30 years since then, Burton has tried to make it again as a full-length movie, which was a tough road to hoe as the studio that financed the short and (ironically) this feature (Disney) initially refused to even show it, claiming the content was too scary for children and lacked commercial appeal.
Even though many of his films of late haven't done great at the box-office, a Burton movie still brings with it a certain prestige factor (kind of, but not quite, like Woody Allen) and Disney made up slightly for past wrongs and gave him a green light.
The good news is that the feature -- thanks largely to technical advancements over the last three decades -- is better than the short. The bad news is the majority of the people who regularly see animated Disney movies will probably hate it. In the case of the later, 20 percent of the 100 or so families at the preview screening walked out early. Not so much because it was too scary but more likely due to the overall bleak and dreary visuals.
Producing any black and white movie these days is a huge gamble; you're just daring the audience to ignore it and while some adults will tolerate it for a while, most children won't. After "Finding Nemo," "The Lion King" and the "Toy Story" trilogy, black and white will simply not cut it. The 3-D presentation is pretty good, but due to the limited palate (500 shades of grey), nothing really pops out. Finally, the stop-motion characters are angular, gaunt, gangly and often freakishly macabre. This all adds up a considerable visual negative triple treat.
Back to the upside -- "Frankenweenie" is a heart-tugging story about a boy and his dog, one that is almost impossible to resist and something to which everyone can relate. Defying typical storytelling logic, Burton and his longtime screenwriter John August were able to take the former's original compact plot and stretch it into something more than three times as long without the new material coming off as time-wasting padding or filler. It flows well and offers dedicated horror fans more than their money's worth via homage.
Lead character Victor Frankenstein is a gifted middle school science nerd. Not exactly anti-social, Victor is politely standoffish and prefers to spend his time in the family attic he's converted into a laboratory with only his dog Sparky as company. His dad is constantly prodding him to get out of the house and on to a ball field of any kind and rather than prolong the battle of wills, Victor gives in. Hoping his mere effort to give it a go will put an end to his dad's hounding, Victor tries baseball but in the process he loses Sparky. Wisely handled off-screen, Sparky's death nonetheless and understandably devastates Victor who becomes even more withdrawn.
Taking his lead from a classroom lesson given by a very Vincent Price-looking teacher, Victor is determined to bring Sparky back to life and winning his school's science contest in the process. From this point on, virtually every visual in the movie acknowledges dozens of horror classics without being clumsy, clunky or trying too hard. The problem is most of this obscure and clever wit will be lost on kids, a fair amount of their parents and anyone with only a passing knowledge of horror film history.
As with all Burton efforts, the humor is dry, droll and in some cases sardonic, but most of it hits its mark. More not-so-great news -- this is about as family-friendly as any Burton movie will ever be and it's still not nearly appealing enough to produce the kind of gargantuan box-office returns Disney is used to getting. That being said, it should be a shoe-in for a Best Animated Picture nomination in what has been a terrible year for the genre as a whole. (Disney)