Frankenweenie is the latest vial of stylistic hot air cooked up in the laboratory of Tim Burton, which resides somewhere in a decrepit gothic castle on top of a hill, past a haunted forest where wolves howl by the light of the moon, one-eyed witches throw children’s tears into cauldrons while vampires rise from the grave and mad scientists in underground bunkers cook up potions that turn kittens into rampaging Godzillas…

Burton would be chuffed for kiddies to believe this is where his movies come from, that they’re the creations of a mad genius with limitless capacity for wonder.

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But as the years roll by and Burton’s “out there” products keep falling off the assembly line (most recently the dreadful Dark Shadows and bumble-footed Alice in Wonderland) the wizard behind the curtain is increasingly looking like a cookie cutter auteur banging out countless variations of the same product.

In Frankenweenie, Burton is doing what Burton now does best, nailed in this deliciously snarky sketch: serving up monster-sized parodies of his own oeuvre.

Having scoured books, fairytales, comics, musicals and other films for macabre putty to play with, Burton reaches a new epoch or nadir — depending on your definition — by remaking his own work while simultaneously remaking a zillion others, fleshing out a live action short he made in the 80s into a feature length stop-motion animated salute to horror movies.

After his beloved pooch Sparky is bowled over by a car, young teen Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) digs up the dog’s corpse and uses electricity, water, lightning and a bunch of thingamabobs to bring him back to life. A fellow student discovers the newly stitched-up Sparky, demands Victor share his secret and before you can say “you do the mash” the town is being throttled by huge beasts in the lead-up to a science fair — an ending dangerously close to directly ripping off the finale to Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).

There is nothing in Frankenweenie that suggests it deserved a feature length workout. The film is legitimately Frankensteinian in the sense that it’s a mangled corpse of other, better, bolder, brighter, more courageous and far less self-referential productions that took risks and didn’t always work, but certainly never had the smug complacency that wafts through this difficult-to-market blotch on the Burton horizon. It’s too kiddish for adults and too macabre for kids.

Every plot point can be seen an enchanted forest mile away and the jokes – supposedly deadpan – are actually just flat. Despite uniquely Burtonian aesthetics — Frankenweenie does score some points for its unconventional texture, even though we already saw it in Corpse Bride (2005) — the haunted doll look of the characters and their drab surrounds feel ho-hum familiar, as if Burton is intentionally invoking a sleepy sense of déjà vu.

Some will happily digest it as a loving homage to dodgy films, which it undeniably is, and time will probably see it appreciate along these lines. But despite its marketable point of difference this is McDonalds moviemaking — plonk it down, fry it up,  slap on a new label, drop fresh tears in the cauldron — and the special sauce rarely tasted so bland.

Frankenweenie’s Australian theatrical release date: October 25, 2012

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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