I had honestly forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a Tim Burton movie.
But now we have “Frankenweenie,” easily the best film Burton has made in years and a true return to form.
Technically “Frankenweenie” is a remake. The original short film was one of Burton’s earliest works, but it hardly feels like a retread given that so few have seen the original, which was also live-action as opposed to stop-motion animation here. The basic story, however, is mostly the same.
Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) lives in the sunny suburb of New Holland. Obsessed with science, he’s mostly a shut-in. Despite his parents’ best efforts otherwise, his only real friend is his dog, Sparky. The two are inseparable, until Sparky gets hit by a car.
Refusing to let death separate him from his best friend, Victor – inspired by a lesson from his science teacher, the looming and scraggly Mr. Ryzkruski (voiced by the inimitable Martin Landau) – sets up a makeshift laboratory in the attic and harnesses the power of a lightning storm to revive Sparky.
However, once the neighborhood kids begin to get wind of Victor’s successful experiment, the consequences are, shall we say, “big.”
One of stated criticisms of Burton’s films is that they tend to focus on a handful of thematic motifs and imagery. Life in a sterilized suburb? Check. A loner/outsider who finds solace in a single companion? Check. A father who wants him to be something he’s not? Check. “Frankenweenie” isn’t an exception to that rule, although Burton uses those to a greater, more satisfying effect than he has in years.
In this way it’s somewhat similar to this year’s other great stop-motion animated “horror” film, “ParaNorman,” in that it’s all about a marginalized loner who has to save his town from a massive threat before its residents will accept him. However, the tone in each film is markedly different.
“Frankenweenie” is also a must-see for any parent wanting a gateway to introducing their kids to the classic horror films. It’s clear that Burton has a boundless affection for old horror and “Frankenweenie” is practically bursting with references (some overt, some less so) to actors, films and tropes.
The film’s look is also what helps usher those references along. I can’t remember the last time a kids’ flick was filmed in black and white (heck, we barely get grown-up films in black and white), but I’m not sure this movie would work as well if it were in color, especially given how steeped it is in classic horror motifs. It just wouldn’t feel…right.
It’s a little strange to think that we’ve gotten three stop-motion animated films this year, much less three with such unique animation styles. “The Pirates!” is probably my favorite (strictly from an animation angle), but largely because I’m such a huge fan of Aardman Studios. The animation in “Frankenweenie” is excellent, though it doesn’t feel as elaborate as some of the animation found in “ParaNorman.” What really sets it apart, though, is the way it perfectly emulates Burton’s 2D drawings. These are quite literally Burton illustrations brought to life and his style translates to 3D sculptures marvelously.
It makes me happy to see Burton finally working with material that means something to him and, as such, provides visible inspiration. Here’s hoping he stays on this track.