There is a Regal Cinemas around the corner from my apartment, just a few blocks from the Simmons campus. Since movie tickets are so expensive I don't go as often as I might like to, but there is a student discount, and I wanted to see Tim Burton's new family horror film Frankenweenie, so this weekend I did just that.
It was a waste of 13 dollars. There was no way to really know how bad it was until the end, when a sickly-sweet ending was tacked on in the last two minutes and it slowly dawned on me that none of the questions raised by the plot were even addressed. It never had the decency to be outright terrible from the get-go, so that I could walk out and save my time.
For some reason the film has been getting good reviews, and it has been hailed as a return to form for Burton. It certainly reflects his signature aesthetic, almost to the point of self-parody. But it wasn't even as solid a story as the equally vapid and forgettable Corpse Bride. In fact, it actually reminded me more of Burton's awful Alice in Wonderland than anything else, because of its transparently lazy storytelling.
Burton has never been a fabulous storyteller, in large part, I think, because of his apparent inability to craft fully-formed, believable characters. This weakness doesn't really hamper movies with a decidedly folkloric tone, like Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish; folktales are meant to be inhabited by walking archetypes. In Frankenweenie, however, the flatly archetypal characters are unbearably dull. They're walking horror-movie cliches. The film is clearly meant to be an "homage" to the classic horror films released by Universal and Hammer, but copying and pasting obvious references does not an homage make. There is nothing clever about simply pointing out that a well-worn trope exists by parroting it. In the case of one character, a devious Japanese boy whose sinister motives are never made clear, the film stoops to flat-out racism.
No one's motives are made clear in the film, except for the protagonist, Victor, who wants his dead dog back, and so resurrects the pooch a la Frankenstein. Apart from that basic premise, there are numerous side plots that come to absolutely nothing:
A menacing but well-intentioned science teacher is fired and run out of town because the suburban parents are too closed-minded to appreciate science, but by the end no one learns any valuable lessons about respect for scientific inquiry.
Victor's neighbor, the mayor of the town, is introduced as an over-the-top villain--but then never does anything truly villainous, and isn't even the story's primary antagonist.
The mayor's niece, Elsa, is introduced as a potential confidante or even love interest for Victor, but no relationship between the two ever materializes.
A group of boys compete with each other for first prize in the science fair, and their efforts result in a slew of monster-ized animals running amok. None of the boys have arcs, and it is never explained how the same process--being zapped by lightening--revives a dead dog, likewise revives a fish but turns it invisible, and then turns various other animals into monsters.
Finally, the end of the film feels like a slap in the face. Even with all the dead-end side plots, the heart of the story is very clearly about a young boy who must come to terms with loss. Just minutes from the end, it seems as though the dog is irreversibly dead, and Victor accepts that he has to let his best friend go. It's a genuinely touching scene...
...and then the damn dog comes back to life, everyone cheers, and the movie ends on that gag-inducing note. None of the characters changed or learned anything. It wasn't a flawed but charming family horror film with genuine heart and warmth; it's just an empty non-effort from a director who's become a parody of himself.
So in case it isn't clear, I don't recommend Frankenweenie, not even as a rental or if you've torrented it; it's just a waste of time. If you're in the mood for animated family horror, watch Monster House, Coraline, or ParaNorman instead.