Directed by Tim Burton
Written by John August based on a story/idea by Tim Burton
Maybe it's because Tim Burton temporarily freed himself from his codependence on Johnny Depp. Maybe not having to apply the Tim Burton aesthetic to existing properties he had no stake in made him dig deep. Maybe it's as simple as having a personal investment in the story for the firs time in nearly two decades. Whatever the reason, Tim Burton does his best work in years in the just released Frankenweenie. The new stop motion film from Disney caps off a renaissance that began with August's Paranorman in animated films with a horror bent geared towards families.
Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) prefers the company of his science kits and loyal dog Sparky to that of his oddball classmates. The film begins with Victor screening his latest monster movie for his parents, one in which his loyal companion fends off the menace of a winged monster. However not too long thereafter Sparky is struck by a car, leaving a grief stricken Victor to prematurely bury his best friend.
Victor's sadness lasts only as long as his next science class when his teacher (voiced by Martin Landeau) demonstrates how electricity can reanimate the dead. Victor digs up Sparky and in a scene that pays outstanding homage to the vision of James Whales, takes advantage of a raging thunderstorm to bring his pup back to life. When one of his classmates, a bug eyed hunchback named Edgar “E” Gore learns and spills Victor's secret, his whole class wants in on the act. Of course the same test yields different results for each child and soon the sleepy town of New Holland finds itself overrun with reanimated monsters ranging from a gang of mischievous toddler sized sea monkeys to a ten story tall Turtle.
Adapted from the short film Burton made for Disney in the 80's (and which they fired him over when they felt he wasted their money), the story doesn't have a lot of meat on the bones. What it offers in abundance is tremendous warmth for its characters and a reverence for its influences (we'll come back to that). Victor might be a loner, but he's never bullied or picked on. In Burton's vision this small town is a place where the freaks and geeks coexist and come together. Despite the cartoonish visuals his characters feel more grounded and down to earth than anyone from a Tim Burton film in many years. It helps that Frankenweenie tells a story almost anyone can empathize with: the overwhelming sense of childhood grief and sadness that accompanies the loss of a beloved pet. While Frankenweenie veers into fantastical directions, this powerful and universal emotion keeps the core of the story anchored.
Frankenweenie is also the best looking Burton has made in years. Where his previous few films have been garish eyesores that look like an art school reject vomited up a rainbow, Burton dials it back for Frankenweenie. The obvious result of filming in black and white means the film emulates the era of the iconic Universal films that provided inspiration. The choice also results in an extraordinary amount of detail and depth on the screen at all times. Nearly every still could be paused, cut out and framed. While I'm not a fan of live action 3D, it has benefited a number of animated efforts including Frankenweenie. The laboratory sequences in particular stand out, with Victor's makeshift erector set popping out of the background and the extra dimension enveloping the viewer rather than providing a distraction. The character design pulls a page from classic small screen horror with everyone looking more than a little like pallid puppet versions of the Addams Family.
As one would expect, Burton peppers Frankenweenie with nods to the classic horror films he loved. From simple nods to The Birds famous phone booth, to Gremlins & Jurassic Park to Vincent Price serving as the model for Victor's science teacher the film is filled with these moments. Burton even manages a quick Batman reference as well. Rather than come off as a shoehorned wink to the audience, Burton folds these moments and visuals into the story in an organic way that serves the greater narrative. The film finds Burton able to take the jumble of iconic movie monsters and moments along with the characters that breathed life into them and manipulate them into something that is uniquely his own.
If you're a parent with a younger child (let's say six or older) Frankenweenie represents a sweetheart of a way to pass on the horror bug to the next generation. In some ways I envy those who can experience these films for the first time with their child in tow. My daughter is two and still a bit young to handle the trio of animated films that hit the late since late summer. While in some ways it's sad that it took Burton this long to adapt one of his own stories again, the wait was worth it. One hopes that the fine form Burton exhibits hears heralds a return to his salad days when he could mix commercial appeal and individual artistry.