From kooky characters to gothic architecture to whimsical scores by composer Danny Elfman, few contemporary directors rival Tim Burton in terms of shameless self-imitation. Once the creator of truly original movies like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, the frizzy haired filmmaker has long since commercialised on his particular brand of creepiness, churning out unimaginative remakes and adaptations in the mould of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, films critically lacking in heart, soul or even a semblance of stylistic variation. But his latest film is a more personal project – a feature length stop motion adaptation of Frankenweenie, the 1984 short film responsible for launching his career. And while the film contains all of Burton’s recognisable – one could say tired – auteurist trademarks, it also boasts a sense of inventiveness and sincerity that makes it his most enjoyable production in quite a considerable while.
In the picturesque town of New Holland, U.S.A lives young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan; Charlie St. Cloud). Gangly and introverted with few friends to his name, Victor is devastated when his pet dog is hit by a car, only to be inspired by an eccentric science teacher (Martin Landau; Sleepy Hollow) to bring “Sparky” back from the dead. Harnessing the power of lightning with the help of a few jerry-rigged kitchen appliances, it isn’t long before Victor has Sparky bounding back across the mortal coil – albeit with a few scars and the need of an occasional recharging. But while Victor is overjoyed at his four legged friend’s revival, the buttoned down town-folk are far less impressed… especially when the rest of Victor’s science class start trying to replicate his results.
On the one hand, Burton hardly breaks new ground with Frankenweenie; aside from the fact that he’s already told this story once before, the film bears all his aforementioned technical trademarks – trademarks he’s barely strayed from in a two and a half decade career. But for the first time in a long while, at least their employment feels earnest. Rather than shilling his sinister shtick with minimal excitement, Burton brings a genuine enthusiasm to Frankenweenie that helps it transcend its stylistic familiarity.
Case in point: the meticulous stop motion animation is ten times as impressive as the digital world of Alice in Wonderland, while the stunning black and white tips it hat to Burton’s major inspirations: the classic Universal Monster movies of the nineteen twenties and thirties. Moments of morbid humour are in endless supply as Sparky’s body parts start falling off; rest assured however that there’s nothing here too twisted or scary for kids.
Moreover, Burton’s personal investment is clear; there obviously more than a little of himself in the Victor Frankenstein character, from his skinny awkwardness to his love of old school horror films. Ironically, the film’s biggest drawback is the poor vocal work from young Charlie Tahan, who mistakes timidness with blandness and as a result feels like he’s barely in the film. The same is also true of Winona Ryder (Black Swan) as his next door neighbour and would-be love interest, although aloof female characters are something of a staple in Burton films, so one suspects the blame lies not with her.
Thankfully, the boring protagonists are more than made up for by the supporting characters, ingenious in both design and behaviour. Landau’s creepily dignified Mr. Ryzkruski is a wonderful homage to Vincent Price, while Victor’s classmates, an animated bunch, include the twitchy, hunchbacked Edgar “E.” Gore and the nefarious Japanese kid Toshiaki. But the highlight has to be the vacant, saucer eyed blonde, known only as “Weird Girl”, who never goes anywhere without her equally strange, possibly prophetic feline, Mr. Whiskers. Of course that’s not counting the star of the show, a pooch so full of life (or something resembling it) that you’ll love him as much as his master.
Indeed, animal lovers are in for a real kick when the final act rolls around, and Ryzkruski’s students inadvertently unleash their creations on the unsuspecting town. With elements of Gremlins, Jurassic Park, Japanese mutant monster flicks and, of course, the Karloff era Frankenstein, the last thirty minutes of this film are a perfect combination of funny and freaky: Burton at his long forgotten best.
Frankenweenie was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Fantastic Fest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.