‘Frankenweenie’ a delightful throwback to old-school horror

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Frankenweenie

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by John August

USA, 2012

Tracking Tim Burton’s career path is watching a cliché come to life. The trajectory is as follows: a shy, awkward young man becomes a star by staying true to his idiosyncratic ideals, but over time, his most ardent fans are let down as his style becomes parodic in nature. The local boy makes good until making good means he’s lost his soul. Burton’s intensely personal style has manifested itself throughout his entire filmography, despite it being filled with so few truly original pieces. From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to Batman to Sleepy Hollow, Burton has been consistent in taking a preexisting concept and being able to put a unique spin on it. However, over the last 10 or 15 years, Burton’s films have felt like a weak shadow of his baroque, pop-Gothic sensibility. Wildly successful though it was, his take on Alice in Wonderland felt especially empty, a cacophonous mess that seemed to exist just for the almighty dollar.

After this spring’s unsuccessful Dark Shadows, the umpteenth Burton film with both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, he returns to the drawing board in more ways than one. Thanks to his burgeoning success over the last decade, Burton was able to get Walt Disney Pictures to allow him the largest possible extension of one of his early passion projects, Frankenweenie. Oh, how the tables have turned: his 1984 live-action short of the same name got him fired from Disney due to its perceived darkness and scariness to kids. Now, Burton’s expanded on the idea of the short—a youngster named Victor Frankenstein brings his beloved bull terrier, Sparky, back to life after the dog is hit by a car—into a full-length, stop-motion-animated feature that’s charming, sweeter, and wittier than most of his recent output.

Set in the suburban burg of New Holland, Frankenweenie is all about the enduring love between a boy and his dog. Thanks to some encouragement from his Vincent Price-esque science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor figures out how to harness the lightning that perpetually hovers over New Holland to bring Sparky back from the dead. While the boy is thrilled to have his dog back and raring to go, Victor’s unable to keep Sparky’s revival a secret, as his classmates decide to pursue their own means of energy-giving lightning strikes to let some new life surge in their previously deceased pets. Anyone who’s seen the 1984 short, starring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern, will recognize many of the plot points and gags, down to the poodle who Sparky takes a shine to, quickly winding up with an Elsa Lanchester-like Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. The third act is where the film becomes truly surprising, as Burton fully embraces B-movie horror conventions of all kinds, turning Frankenweenie into a glorious pastiche.

As with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie was created in stop-motion animation, a format that seems to bring out Tim Burton’s heart most of all. (Even in The Nightmare Before Christmas, helmed by Henry Selick while only produced by Burton, his sensibility is immediately recognizable.) For whatever reason, Burton seems most comfortable in baring his innermost childlike emotions in the least colorful and old-school format possible. As such, though it’s easy to see Frankenweenie as Burton treading on very familiar ground, this is a pleasantly satisfying trip down memory lane. Here, at least, those recognizable gags or settings—New Holland, for instance, looks awfully similar to the pastel-colored suburbia of Edward Scissorhands—don’t feel lazy or worn, but fitting and welcome. And the 3D in the film is, though not as jaw-dropping as what was on display in Coraline or Hugo, not distracting and rarely used for cheap tricks.

Though the script, by John August, is full of knowing, savvy jokes, Frankenweenie is at its best when it’s dialogue-free. When Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan, earnestly and emotionally) brings Sparky back to life, in a scene replete with references to James Whale’s seminal 1931 version of Frankenstein, it’s taut and exciting, as Burton and the animators are able to communicate the roiling tension burning inside of the boy without him uttering a word. A good chunk of the third act, set at a nighttime carnival where horror standards spin around each other like whirling dervishes, is fun and unpredictable, but not heavy on chatter. Danny Elfman’s score, playfully hearkening back to the goofy and melodramatic scores of 1950s horror films, gets across enough emotion, thrills, and humor in these action setpieces; frankly, Burton and August deserve credit for knowing to leave well enough alone, to not interfere with what’s working by including unnecessary dialogue.

That said, though this new film doesn’t feature any cast members from the short, the voice actors do decent work. Landau, who’s only in a few scenes but is hilarious, is the standout, playing a character who could easily be construed as a raving lunatic. Still, he gets to explain one of the film’s chief messages, a strong advocacy of the scientific method and of questioning in general. It’s rare for a mainstream film to so boldly and directly criticize modern ignorance while embracing the curiosity at the heart of science, yet Burton, using Landau’s twisted mentor figure as a conduit, pulls it off. And while Depp and Bonham Carter don’t make an appearance here, making Frankenweenie the first Burton film since Mars Attacks where neither of them are involved, there are a few returning actors from the Burton stable. Notably, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara are fine in supporting roles as Victor’s next-door neighbor and mother, respectively. O’Hara also gets to play a few side characters, including a creepy girl who’s outrageously devoted to her cat; as such, she makes a stronger impression than Ryder does. If anything, the most memorable part of Ryder’s performance is that she’s surprisingly convincing as the voice of a preteen girl.

Much of the look, feel, and design of Frankenweenie will remind many people why they flocked to the films of Tim Burton in the first place. Unlike much of his recent work—Big Fish and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street excluded—Frankenweenie isn’t soulless, nor is it impersonal. He wasn’t really able to convince us that he loved a 1970s vampire soap opera or the Roald Dahl story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Burton doesn’t need to do any heavy lifting to convince us with Frankenweenie, a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the cheap, chintzy, and ramshackle horror movies he was enthralled with as a little boy. If only for one movie, Tim Burton’s bighearted yet introverted spirit has returned, thank God.

— Josh Spiegel

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