Over the last few years, it has been painful to watch a Tim Burton film. The visual wonder is still in place, but the level of heart that typically resides beneath the technical panache has gone dormant, and his voice as a director, one that has provided refuge for the meek and alienated, is mute. Had Burton lost his touch, or has he simply gone on auto-pilot, a notion cemented by Johnny Depp’s constant casting in lead roles? I feared that the Tim Burton who created fantastic characters such as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlegeuse was dead. For me, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows was the funeral march and the burial. Yet, if those films marked his grave ending, Frankenweenie is his resurrection…or reanimation. Based off a short he put together in the 80’s, Frankenweenie is a beautiful stop motion film that playfully pays homage to 1931’s Frankenstein, as well as other monster films from the same time period. Taking place in New Holland, which features a massive windmill that echoes Frankenstein’s riveting ending, Frankenweenie is simply about a boy and his unstoppable affection for his dog. Said boy is Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a brilliant teen that surrounds himself with science instead of friends.
In typical Burton fashion Victor is a loner that seems disinterested in social norms, a notion that worries his parents. But all Victor needs is scientific growth and his trustful dog, Sparky. Yet, as Victor comes to find out through a tragic accident sparked by his attempt to gel with the youth of his city, Sparky’s presence in his life is finite. Emotionally broken after his furry friend’s death, Victor slips further away, disenchanted by life’s fragility. Thankfully, Victor’s brilliant mind pulls him out of a lull as he recalls a science lecture revolving around electricity and its effect on a dead frog. Before you know it, Victor digs up Sparky, concocts a laboratory in his attic, and attracts a lightning bolt big enough to pull Sparky back from the heavens. It’s a fantastic scene bursting with pure emotional joy. Too bad Victor can’t enjoy the return of his beloved friend. Once his fellow classmates find out about Sparky’s return to the living, they see an opportunity to exploit Victor’s experiment in love for a school science project. Much like in Frankenstein, once the townsfolk see the unnatural creation, panic and strife run amok in a town not willing to understand the miracle in front of them.
Emulating the same circumstances found in the ending of Frankenstein, Frankenweenie draws to a rousing close that is fantastically rendered and emotionally potent. The evocation of Frankenstein not only lends the film a powerful ending, but wonderfully encapsulates the film’s endearing attitude towards black and white monster films of the same ilk. From one of Victor’s fellow classmates being a carbon copy of the hunchback known as Igor to a next door neighbor by the name of Elsa van Helsing (voiced by the soft-spoken Winona Ryder), Frankenweenie is bursting with delightful film references. Matching Burton’s amount of affection for classic monster films is his natural inclination to add playfully macabre flourishes to a simple story. Whether it’s Sparky losing appendages or a cat that poops premonitions, Burton, and his screenwriter John August, fearlessly embrace zany plot points without losing the film’s real appeal: never-ending friendship. I imagine there will be a collection of parents and children who will be cold to the film’s dark edges, most notably characters digging up their dead pets, but if given a chance, Frankenweenie will undeniably be an enriching experience for all ages.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise the film for its technical prowess. Featuring an exuberant, haunting score by Danny Elfman, Frankenweenie boasts unbelievable character design and fluid animation. Painstakingly crafted and robust with detail, the characters slip from Burton’s imagination and pop off the screen, which is further substantiated when seen in the IMAX format. Outside from evoking a nostalgic feeling from the older generation, Burton’s characters are wonderfully framed in lush black and white, a move that gives the film a majestic, hypnotic dreamlike quality. But for all its impeccable designs and delirious wonder, Frankenweenie is a heartfelt film that magically captures the painful joys of life. And even though the film is about a child and his unflappable love for his pet, Frankenweenie is about all the enduring relationships we hold onto in life, and in death. Welcome back, Tim Burton.