Visionary filmmaker Tim Burton once had the golden touch, releasing a string of imaginative and instant-classic films in his early days such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Ed Wood, not to mention co-creating the groundbreaking stop-motion animation film A Nightmare Before Christmas. But he has had a pretty patchy past few years — or even past decade, depending on who you ask — and despite the fact that his films still look incredible, attract top-notch casts and do big business at the box office, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything remotely original or personal from the formerly unique artist. Many fans were still defending Burton up until the utterly offensive 3D mess Alice in Wonderland came along and made that task impossible, and this year’s atrocious Dark Shadows rubbed salt into the wounds. Other recent projects he attached his name to, namely 9 and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, were just as dire and reputation-damaging. So while it’s more than understandable for filmgoers to have written off Burton at this point, I would suggest putting aside some of those resentments and giving his latest effort a chance, as Frankenweenie is the most consistent, personal and enjoyable film he has made in many years.
Tim Burton’s latest project arrives with a bit of history: while employed by Disney as an animator in the early ’80s, Burton made a black-and-white live-action short called Frankenweenie, a parody of/homage to Frankenstein which promptly resulted in his dismissal under the pretext that company resources were spent on a film that was too dark and scary for children. He obviously went on to prove them wrong with a string of macabre hits, and Disney would change their tune 25 years later with an offer to direct two films in Digital 3D: Alice in Wonderland and a remake of Frankenweenie. The former was another studio assignment for a pre-existing property stuck in development hell — much like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it — and you could sense the lack of passion and care that went into it, while the latter is a return to something personal for Burton and the opposite is true in this case.
Frankenweenie closely follows the story of the original short, in which a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) becomes distraught over the accidental death of his dog Sparky and harnesses the power of science to bring him back to life. What has changed drastically however is the visual style, which is now rendered in stunning black-and-white stop-motion animation. In true Burton form, Victor is a lonerish monster movie fanatic and science fair geek who looks a little like Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands and lives in the bizarro-1950s suburban town of New Holland. Once his eccentric science teacher (Martin Landau, doing his best Vincent Price) plants the idea of reanimation via electricity, Victor begins a clever experiment which makes use of the town’s abundance of lightning strikes to bring back Sparky (“voiced” by Scoobie Doo legend Frank Welker, and modelled after Burton’s Family Dog design). The only problem is that once Sparky rejoins the living, he needs to be hidden from the prying eyes of New Holland’s unusual residents — including Victor’s Gothy neighbour/love interest Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), her grumpy uncle Mayor Bergermeister (Martin Short), his Igor-esque schoolmate Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) and a blond pixie (Catherine O’Hara, credited as Weird Girl) whose cat has disturbing psychic premonitions — not to mention his unwitting parents (O’Hara and Short).
The film’s second act sags a little, as Sparky is locked in the attic while Victor goes to school and contemplates what to do about his extraordinary circumstances in a manner occasionally reminiscent of E.T. and The Iron Giant, and a few subplots are introduced only to be left unresolved (including an invisible fish that disappears, and the rising suspicions of Mayor Bergermeister). But once Sparky escapes and Victor’s classmates start creating pet cemetery abominations of their own for the science fair, the pace picks up rapidly and builds towards a big, wild climax at a burning windmill. John August’s script and Burton’s visuals are packed with quirky, fun references to the old horror fare that inspired them — including the 1931 Frankenstein and its Universal Horror contemporaries, as well as Godzilla, Gremlins and more — and while often humourous they occasionally threaten to overwhelm the film entirely. Thankfully Frankenweenie has a strong, heartfelt core in the relationship between Victor and Sparky that adds some emotional realism to the heavily-stylized proceedings, which is something we don’t expect from the notoriously detached Burton. In fact, Sparky feels so much like a real dog — even post-reanimation — that he is perhaps the film’s crowning achievement and a true testament to the enormous skill of the animators Burton has on board here (many of whom worked on his previous stop-motion effort, Corpse Bride). The animation is absolutely stunning throughout and makes another strong case for the time-consuming stop-motion technique — alongside the works of Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit), Sam Fell (ParaNorman) and Burton colleague Henry Selick (Coraline) — even in the post-converted 3D screening I attended (I found the extra dimension neither offensive nor entirely necessary).
In their enthusiasm to praise Frankenweenie some critics have been calling it Burton’s best film since 1994’s Ed Wood, which may or may not be overstating it a little. The film certainly looks terrific, has a fun premise, beguiling set-up, scene-stealing performance from Martin Landau, exciting finale, another great Danny Elfman score (plus a stellar new Karen O song over the closing credits) and is pretty good fun throughout, but it also has Burton’s usual structural problems and could have used some more original character designs (several seem to be recycled from Corpse Bride). I think I would need to reappraise Burton’s catalogue in order to make a definitive judgement as to where it ranks — I’m not as down on Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish or Sweeney Todd as some — but Frankenweenie is certainly an impressive return to form for one of the most original voices of his generation, and I must say I’m surprised that it is still lingering in my mind weeks later. That is more than I can say about any Burton project in a long while and as a former fan I’m glad to have him back. Now let’s just hope those nasty Beetlejuice 2 rumours don’t become a reality…
Frankenweenie is out in cinemas today. If you live in New Zealand and would like to win tickets and a copy of the soundtrack, make sure to enter the draw throughout this week. Watch the latest trailer below.