For the last three decades, Tim Burton has been one of the most notorious and peculiar film directors in Hollywood. His characteristic gothic and dark visuals, bizarre characters and heartfelt themes have become a definite trademark in the movie industry.
A new film from Burton always raises eyebrows, whether it is in fascination, like his early work in Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, or in disappointment, as with his two latest films, Alice in Wonderland and last May’s Dark Shadows.
But fans of his work will be relieved to learn that Frankenweenie, his latest movie, is a part of the former category. Burton’s second animated film — he did not direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, contrary to popular belief — is revitalizing and refreshing both for his career and audiences.
The film is no flashy animated spectacle that relies on 3-D and cheap gags to dazzle. Instead, it boasts a stylish and heartfelt story about a boy and his dog. Though formulaic, the plot effectively wins audiences over by providing them with a well-balanced mix of dark humor, scares and drama — a combination not often seen on screen.
Frankenweenie tells the story of the young Victor Frankenstein (reference to the classical monster completely intended) and his dog Sparky. Victor loves Sparky, his only friend, more than anything else in the world. One day, tragedy strikes Victor when Sparky is run over by a car. Victor then brings his beloved pet back to life using the mysterious electricity that hits the town of New Holland every night. It’s not too long before the other kids (each of them classical archetypes inside the Burton world) find out the truth and decide to try out their own experiments.
The movie is based on a 1984 live-action short film that Burton directed while working at Disney as an animator. Frankenweenie had always been one of his dream projects, and Burton brought it back to life in the form of a stop-motion (a technique that he always intended for the story), full-length, animated movie. And it works surprisingly well.
The essence of the film (penned by USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus John August) undeniably stems from the devout relationship between Victor and Sparky — which anyone who has ever had a pet can easily relate to — and the film does not lack in laughs or freakouts. It does, however, follow the “Burton Manual for Eccentric Behavior” a little too closely, which gives the feeling that all of this has been done before.
The aesthetics of the movie work particularly well for its somber tone. Frankenweenie makes use of beautifully crafted stop-motion, one of the few handcrafted techniques left in animation. The detail and work put into each frame appears in the final product, and though watching it in 3-D might distract from this and doesn’t add much to the experience, it doesn’t get in the way of full enjoyment, either. The detailed nuances of the film might be lost on younger audiences (just as in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride), but hopefully the overall heartfelt feeling of the story will override the scary quality of the film for young viewers.
Interestingly, Frankenweenie marks the first Tim Burton movie that features neither Johnny Depp since 2003’s Big Fish, nor his wife Helena Bonham Carter since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. In their place, Burton reunites with former collaborators Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara, among other talents, who create an effective, but not celebrity-based, cast of voice talent. The movie does not need star names to lift it up.
And for all the film geeks out there, Frankenweenie serves as one of the biggest homages to classic horror films in recent years, featuring the more-than-obvious connection to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and characters from the Werewolf to Godzilla. If you look closely, this charming animated movie can very well turn out to be a revival of every B-horror movie ever released.
If Dark Shadows showed us why Burton has been doing the same thing over and over again, for all the wrong reasons, Frankenweenie does the same for all the right ones. Though far from being his best work, the movie is a feel-good, well-crafted animated feature that contains every fundamental characteristic of the director while still having a charm that shines on its own. Though darker than it appears at first sight, the film will please younger audiences as well as older ones, especially if they are horror fans.
If someone was thinking that Burton was in decay after his latest works, Frankenweenie is the best example to prove that there’s still some of that intriguing and freakish genius inside him.