‘Frankenweenie’ score feels like a composition that Elfman has always wanted to do

Resurrection is germane not only to the story of Frankenweenie but also Tim Burton’s career as an endearing cinematic oddball. With his latest foray into stop-motion animation, Burton has revisited the story that started his career, showing more focus and care than we’ve seen from the man in years. But what’s even more special about this cinematic return to form is the fact that all this newfound vitality has rubbed off on Burton’s own musical Igor, Danny Elfman, and I’m happy to say that this is one of the composer’s best efforts in quite some time.

I should say that this isn’t so much a career reanimation for Elfman as it was for Burton. While I’d call Burton’s previous two films grave missteps, I don’t know that I’d say the same about their scores. Elfman always delivers in one way or another, but you can tell when the content doesn’t give him that unique jolt of inspiration. Frankenweenie, however, with its lovingly antiquated charm and references to old school horror filmmaking, affords Elfman with the tools to really get in there and create, and the man has a ball.

The composer’s excitement can be heard almost immediately when he turns Walt Disney Studio’s logo theme into classic monster movie fare, theremin and all, mutating the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” into something that would make Rosza and Herrmann proud. While this bit of fun definitely sets the tone for the majority of the score, the beginning is much more lighthearted. With “Main Titles” we’re introduced to the film’s main theme, a classic Elfman piece containing warm strings and angelic vocals that carry a sense of nostalgia, complementing the film’s throwback to the monochromatic 1950s. Through the theme’s cheery kineticism, Elfman perfectly captures the innocent connection between a boy and his dog.

The bliss reaches its end with “Game of Death”, which underscores the fateful baseball game that ultimately leads to Sparky’s death. The piece’s emotional journey begins with unsure woodwinds hinting toward the inevitable tragedy and crescendos in a triumphant rendition of the main theme, reflecting Victor’s athletic achievement. That cheery kineticism returns for a brief period and abruptly ends in doom as solemn strings close the track.

Elfman excels at conveying a spectrum of emotions in a short amount of time, as he’s previously shown with “The Growing Montage” and “Wheels in Motion” from Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory respectively. He follows this piece up with “Funeral”, which is undoubtedly the highlight and emotional heart of the score. It’s a moving piece that expresses a sense of loss and longing beautifully. It also contains some of the most gut-wrenching piano work I’ve heard from the composer.

While the score’s opening allows Elfman to frolic in quaint, emotional domesticity, he really gets to flex his muscles when the film embraces its ties to science fiction and horror. “Re-Animation” is a grand piece that manically underscores Victor’s resurrection of Sparky. While the track complements a scene of chaos, it’s actually impeccably structured, with blaring horns and frenetic violins building on top of each other as a female soloist shrills, bringing the piece to its feverish heights as the young mad scientist experiments with desperation.

This macabre energy is maintained throughout the rest of the score in tracks like “Making Monsters” and “Final Confrontation”, all of which Elfman writes with gusto, utilizing propulsive timpani and cacophonous organs that heighten the monstrosities beset upon the small town of New Holland. He’s flirted with this type of writing before in films like Wolfman and Mars Attacks but he’s never felt this engaged and unhinged.

Frankenweenie concludes with “Happy Ending”, which features a richly understated reprise of the main theme that harkens back to the emotional catharsis of Edward Scissorhands and solidifies the fact that Elfman knows how to end a score. Frankenweenie feels like a composition that Elfman has always wanted to do, and his genuine delight in the material provides the audience with a deeper, more resonant connection with the film. Elfman’s work here contains all of the elements that made me initially fall in love with the composer and it’s a treasure to have him back with a score that I would have no hesitation declaring as one of his best.

– Jeremy Caesar

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