Frankenweenie begs comparison to ParaNorman. Released within weeks of one another, both timed for Halloween’s seasonal festivities, and each crafted using the tactile artistry of stop-motion animation, the two films have so much in common it would be easy to confuse them. And yet, what’s striking is how different they actually are. ParaNorman had a wistful mood that hung over it like a quiet specter. It had an urgent plot, a sympathetic protagonist, and a topical message. Frankenweenie is a higher profile project (it was directed by Tim Burton based on his famous original short), but it’s so slight, so underwhelming as a narrative experience, that it seems to evaporate from memory as you watch it. Although visually enchanting (macabre and imaginative), Frankenweenie offers very little story, and even less substance.
Essentially, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie. Victor Frankenstein (a descendent of the famous scientist perhaps) is a grade-schooler who doesn’t quite fit in, for he’s pretty average in a menagerie of otherworldly weirdoes. Victor enjoys normal things, like movies, baseball, and playing with his dog Sparky. The titular hound meets his grisly demise like so many beloved canines before him: He’s run over by a Chevy. Inspired by his teacher’s demonstration of the effects of electricity on dead tissue, Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse and zaps it with lightning, thereby miraculously re-animating his lost companion. Frankenweenie’s aesthetic architecture is meant to evoke such a process: The dead brought back to life. It’s shot in archaic black and white, uses the shadowy atmospherics of Universal’s bygone horror heyday, and animates its figures with the stiff movements of rigor mortis.
The movie is nearly fetishistic in its obsession with style. Were Tim Burton a raconteur as well as a fantasist, his narrative might not be so threadbare that it labors to reach its eighty-minute goal. As filler, the other kids try to resurrect their own deceased pets in an attempt to win some science fair. The results yield a crop of deformed monsters that sum up the whole movie: As imaginatively conceived as the details are, they still can’t resuscitate Victor’s colorless quest for post-mortem companionship. (The reason why all the other pets transmogrify so horrifically is only half explained.) What Frankenweenie exemplifies best is Tim Burton’s talent for character design. The best freak in Freaksville is Victor’s classmate Edgar E. Gore, a toady, hunchbacked sycophant voiced stridently by The Middle’s Atticus Schaefer with more personality than ten Victors. Now to retell the Frankenstein legend with Igor as the star, that would be an act of subversion worth zapping to life.