For Tim Burton’s latest end-of-year family friendly output, Disney has resurrected Burton’s 1984 live action short Frankenweenie, now with an even cuter monster pup at the heart of the action. Said dog goes by Sparky, with physical dimensions improbable and charming, and an expressive jaunt to the animator’s great credit. So when Sparky meets his untimely end, it’s no small loss. Sparky’s boy, Victor Frankenstein, is totally grief-stricken, until he makes like his namesake and brings his little buddy back to living color.
Like Victor, practically everyone in the wee town of New Holland has a name that references some horror movie heavy-hitter, hinting at the film’s rewarding climactic monster mashup in which their pets turn on them. The scale of the action is considerably larger than the short, and yet the scope of the feature feels smaller and more insular. It’s a welcome feeling coming from a big-draw family film, ignoring any pressure of higher external stakes to pump up the action, trusting that a boy and his dog is hook enough for most. The live action short suggested a larger world outside of the camera, in which Victor’s classmates have whole families and New Holland’s roads presumably lead to another town. Animation provides the opposite effect: what exists of this rendered fictional world is purely what the animators have created for the story—there is nothing beyond the frame. Burton plays this up, keeping New Holland hermitic and fable-like. But the film is drawn in too broad strokes, and Victor’s classmates risk being made into stock approximations of creepy Tim Burton kids, finite in a way that feels lazy not otherworldly.
Two of the children, however, are particularly of note, though for opposite reasons. The first is the film’s representative from the feline consulate, unfortunately named Weird Girl (a wild guess that Burton is more of a dog person) that carries her cat around with her everywhere, informing a classmate when they’ve been the subject of one of Mr. Whiskers’ premonitions. The cat is reminiscent of a Victoria Roberts illustration, startlingly funny but also providing a welcome note of difference within Burton’s visual universe, so frequently populated by characters copied and pasted from previous films. Less delightful, however, is Weird Girl’s Japanese classmate, Toshiaki. In an attempt to reference sci-fi and horror movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s, Burton has also borrowed some of their racism, too, weighing down Toshiaki with uncomfortable elements of caricature and exaggeration. Reverence and appreciation for film history is charming, but some things are better left in the past.