Movie review: ‘Frankenweenie’ dead on arrival

“Frankenweenie” is Tim Burton’s second bad movie of 2012, a tragically misguided comedy that is marketed at children but may have trouble finding an audience outside of Burton’s die-hards.  As its title suggests, it is that infamous story of creating life out of body parts, with man’s best friend replacing discarded human remains.

Various parts of other old horror movies creep their way into “Frankenweenie’s” black-and-white stop-motion world, though the lightheartedly morbid humor and Burton’s stock character types mark it as his.  The emo avatar standing in for him this time is young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a curious scientist-in-the-making whose dog Sparky is hit by a car after retrieving the home run ball in the game Victor’s dad (Martin Short) made him play.

Of course he brings the dog back to life, channeling lightning into his skeleton just like he saw his science teacher do to a frog.  The point screenwriter John August throws into his script is the value of scientific inquiry being taught in schools.  It’s buried in the awkwardly-paced, reference-obsessed final product, but it surfaces in a charming scene between Victor and his recently fired teacher (Martin Landau).

The most troubling thing about “Frankenweenie” isn’t that it’s muddled, but that it carries more than monsters from the past with it.  Ugly stereotypes plague the narrative, from the inherently sinister Asian (who also brings forth a Godzilla-type monster) to the fat buffoon who constantly falls and injures himself for our amusement.  Alongside those bitter portrayals, the vacuous suburbanites that populate New Holland almost seem kindly illustrated.

Burton has made a career out of zooming in on the black-haired pale people who live in a world with a brighter color palette, and as a result his images are always more consistent than his stories.  “Frankenweenieis beautifully rendered in all black and white stop-motion animation, and the 3D presentation enhances this because — other than a moment with a lurching black cat — it’s not used as an attention-grabbing gimmick.

Sparky in particular is a fantastically conceived creation.  From his rebirth after the car accident to his several detachable appendages, he is more consistently alive than anything else on the screen, though the monster mash at the town’s festival at the end jolts the movie to life.  Burton tames much of the visual macabre he would otherwise delight in showing — though largely because this is a film marketed at children and released by Disney.

More dead animals are brought to life after Victor’s life-giving secret is leaked by an Igor-esque classmate, but his sadness at the loss of his dog is palpable.  Experiments, his teacher tells him, must be personal and have an element of passion to them.  The same is true of filmmaking, and it’s very evident which parts of “FrankenweenieBurton cared about (visual style and monster movie references) and which ones he just threw together (pretty much everything else).

Grade: D+