As a filmmaker, Tim Burton is truly a strange creature. On one hand, he is unquestionably a director in the auteur tradition, shepherding projects that reflect his personal obsessions with misunderstood characters, classic horror and American suburbia (see: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Dark Shadows, Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow). On the other hand he’s also a blockbuster director-for-hire, willing to put his visual stamp on screenplays of varying quality (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes).
When he’s on fire, Burton is capable of crafting unforgettable movies that will send chills down your spine; but when he misfires, it results in a soulless celluloid stillbirth covered with his kooky glitter. And over the last ten years, there’s been a lot of wasted glitter. You could even argue that he’s not made a great film this century! But with this new animated feature, will Burton finally break his duck?
You know what? It very well could.
Adapted from his 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie feels out of place with Burton’s recent works, occasionally striking a similar tone to Edward Scissorhands (and that’s not a bad thing at all).
Young Victor Frankenstein (no relation) is a budding film-maker living in a suburban town. A shy boy, Victor has few friends beside his dog Sparky, which makes it all the much harder for him when the beloved pooch is killed in an accident. Grief-stricken and inconsolable, Victor is inspired by his science teacher to harness the power of lightning to bring Sparky back from the dead. Borrowing his mother’s kitchen appliances and employing a couple of kites, he’s able to turn his suburban attic into a makeshift laboratory and revive his best friend against the wishes of God.
Burton packs in a load of references to early horror films from Dracula to Gamera (Burton-regular Christopher Lee appears in the form of archive footage from Horror of Dracula on the TV). Even Victor’s classmates all look like students from Transylvania High. Considering the film’s target audience is probably around 12 years old, its reference to old films and use of black-and-white is something that’s incredibly bold. It’s almost like we’re back in the 80s, when family films weren’t afraid of being a bit frightening and dealing with heavy issues like isolation and death.
The voice casting sees Burton reunite with many actors with whom he hasn’t collaborated since the 80s and 90s. We’ve got Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice as Victor’s mother and classmate; Martin Landau from Ed Wood as his science teacher; and Martin Short (from Mars Attacks) in a number of roles including the town’s corpulent mayor. One notable omission from the cast, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is Johnny Depp. We went into our Burton/Depp theory with last week’s Dark Shadows review (which you can see here), so we won’t go into any detail here. Let us just say that there’s definitely a direct correlation between the quality of Burton’s films and the amount of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter featured therein.
There isn’t much in Burton’s original short that hasn’t made its way into this full-length version, down to the framing of individual shots; which explains why this film feels like a throwback (in a good way). The director is working in a world intimately familiar to him and it shows: the broad camp he brought to Dark Shadows is gone, as is the icy-cold detachment of Sweeney Todd. In their place, there’s the warmth that defines the finest of his films. According to rottentomatoes, this is his most critically praised directorial effort since Ed Wood and we can only echo their sentiments. Frankenweenie sees Tim Burton back at his best – let’s just hope he can keep it up.