In America when a writer wants to work on an existing television series they’ll often create what’s called a "spec script", which would be an imaginary episode of the programme they want to work for. The script would not only demonstrate their skills as a writer but prove that they understand the style, pacing and tone of the show, as well as being able to ape the distinct voices of its characters.
If Tim Burton’s filmography existed as a television series, it's easy to imagine that Frankenweenie would be a spec script for it, an imagined, archetypal version of what a Tim Burton film is like.
Putting aside the $39 million budget, it’s as if Burton had forgotten to create a film, and suddenly it was the day before it was due in at Disney and so he stayed up all night putting it together out of the bits and pieces of his old ones. Here are some spindly characters, misunderstood by their community but ultimately lovable. Here are some evil fat antagonists. Here are some references to 30s horror films. Here’s Christopher Lee, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau. Here’s a Danny Elfman score, sounding identical to every other non-Simpsons score he’s ever done. Here’s a climax at a flaming windmill.
Cover it all in black and white stripes and you have yourself a creatively bankrupt Tim Burton film. At least from the perspective of its creator, Frankenweenie is one of the laziest films ever made. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, or one of Damien Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde, or basically anything Damien Hirst has made in the past 17 years.
There’s a moment towards the end of the film where one of the main characters, having done something self-sacrificial and heroic, lies dead. The music swells dramatically and the other characters mourn his loss. He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead … and then there’s a twitch. Just a twitch. The other characters don’t notice at first, but then there’s another, and then suddenly he’s back to life, having saved the day for everyone. It’s a miracle.
This isn’t really a spoiler because whether you’re aware of it of not, you know every beat of this scene. You’ve already seen it a few dozen times. The resurrection moment is one of the cheapest methods of audience manipulation in cinema, and yet it pops up again and again, mostly in films aimed at children who aren’t old enough to realise how lazy it is.
It’s a way to milk all the emotion of a main character’s death without having to have a pesky unhappy ending. Excluding E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which can be given a pass for a similar scene because it’s sublime, there’s no excuse for it in modern cinema. That such a moment features as the climax of Frankenweenie is endemic of everything that’s wrong with the film. It assumes that because its audience is mostly made up of children that it can get away with being pedestrian and obvious and hackneyed. Hopefully parents of those children will be able to prove the film wrong.
Frankenweenie is on general release now. It was screened at the London Film Festival.