Directed by Tim Burton
Written by John August
‘I Was A Teenage Frankenstein’ would be an apt subtitle for Tim Burton’s latest trawl through imagery and imagination that he has flogged to death over the past decade of his increasingly repetitive career, this time conjuring up an unnecessarily expensive re-imagining of his first 1984 live-action short for Disney with the clumsy title of Frankenweenie, produced shortly before the house of mouse let him go for not conforming with their child friendly, wholesome family image which found little truck with his Gothic vision of outcasts adrift in the sterile suburban belt of Eighties America. How times have changed as thirty years later a sinisterly animated strain of mainstream attuned product has been haunting multiplexes, with both ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania salting the ground of the malicious macabre, summoning Burton’s big-budget, 3D reanimated return to a festering corpse, the opening night gala of this year’s London Film Festival.
With a fledgling interest in both celluloid creation and scientific wonder Victor Frankenstein lives with his parents and beloved dog Sparky in the usual Burtonesque, twisted suburban enclave of New Holland. Faintly concerned with his son’s loner tendencies and airy isolation Victor’s father (Martin Short) encourages him to take up Baseball and hopefully make some real friends, a doomed quest as at his first game Victor hits a home run and his boisterous canine is subsequently slain by a hit and run car when pursuing the ball – jeez, thanks Dad. Partially inspired by his new spectral science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) and with the upcoming science fair in mind Victor makes a desperate gambit, reanimating his only friend through the pulsing power of the stormy elements, his achievement detected by Edgar, a classmate and hunchbacked Igor clone who malignly demands a repeat of the electrifying experiment. With identical procedures adopted by Victor and Edgar’s lurching school-friends New Holland is soon under assault by a horde of unholy, shrieking cacodaemons, soundtracked to the director’s trademark chitinous Danny Elfman choir.
The only truly terrifying aspect of Frankenweenie isn’t the tiresome retreading of ancient sullied ground but the fact that this rarely funny, visually striking but perfectly predictable monstrosity cost $85 million to make. The voice talent is adequate and abjures the distorted mannequins with a convincing lilt, but we’re not exactly looking at the deployment of super expensive, A list talent here, so why the horrific budget? Full marks to Burton for insisting on a monochrome, ‘B’ movie aura investment in handsome Black & White cinematography, but the 3D definitions add little to the nefarious playing as God, it’s not remotely scary and is clearly aimed to entertain through the usual Hollywood paradigms rather than provoke which is understandable as it’s clearly aiming for the widest possible demographic, although a final moral abjuration is muddled and hypocritical, which unstitches all the mortal convictions which have been previously invoked.
Frankenweenie is a little unwieldy with many superfluous characters, the chief culprit being Elsa – no doubt a nod to Elsa Lancaster, the distracting wife of Charles Laughton and the original Bride of Frankenstein - occupying the same goth aligned pixie dream girl paradigm that Burton repeatedly populates his universe with, a thoroughly redundant character in this instance (voiced by Winona Ryder) who appears to be set up as a potential love interest to Victor but this is never taken forward to any potential conclusion. The single funny scene sees Mr. Rzykruski, a distorted hybrid of Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi channeled via Martin Landau’s gloaming vocal stylistics chastises a school PTA meeting by willfully admitting he wants to nourish upon the children’s brains, although the film gains some traction once the final squad of unholy degenerates descends on the community’s festival day the twilight antics of this adolescent necromancer have exhausted any real, lasting affection.
During the post screening press conference, Burton likened the film’s journey to Victor’s dangerous act of creation, like film-making itself an assembly of ideas and ideals which may find its own unanticipated life, proving that there is still a pulsing brain lurking under his electrically charged mane of hair, and although yes this is a film aimed squarely at an adolescent audience one has to ask why? Why balloon a previously slight piece other than to cash-in on the directors aura to an audience starved of original material, especially since there is no real intent or inspiring fascination evident in this instantly forgettable animation. For Burton acolytes this wander through the director’s distorted greatest hits and design archetypes will be sure to seduce, a necrotic laced swirling cotton candy for the previously converted, for those who remember a potentially unholy talent who has seemingly squandered his career on endless re-imaginings and toothless remakes of cult properties this won’t resurrect his increasingly diminishing, stuttering and jerky returns.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 10th – 21st. Please visit the festival’s official website for a complete schedule of films, screening times, and further information on Frankenweenie.