It’s alive! It’s alive! Tim Burton’s ability to make excellent films is once again alive!
I’d just about given up hope on Burton as a director since over the past decade or so, he’s been more concerned with making films that look like cliché Tim Burton films than actually examining the dark, the mysterious, the unknown and the quirky, all elements that were staple of his earlier work. When Burton was still on the rise, there always appeared to be some risk to his films, a desire to tell stories no one else had the capacity for. And yet since his failed remake of PLANET OF THE APES, Burton’s work has gotten a little sloppier, a little lazier with his visual style becoming a parody of itself and his eye for unique characters essentially going blind. BIG FISH and CORPSE BRIDE are nice films that shouldn’t be disparaged during this time period, but when you look at pictures like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SWEENEY TODD, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DARK SHADOWS, they all give off the vibe of films made by someone who thought those ideas fit into what a Tim Burton film should be, and not necessarily because they had passion for the material, as was crystal clear with BEETLEJUICE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and ED WOOD.
That old-school Burton strangeness is back with FRANKENWEENIE, the feature-length stop-motion animation take on the 1984 live-action short film that got him fired from Disney once upon a time. There’s a sense of imagination and wonder that’s been missing from Burton’s films over the past few years that’s quite apparent as you watch FRANKENWEENIE that it really just feels like the enigmatic director gives a shit again. The result is a sweet tale about a boy and his incredible love for his dog, who, after meeting his accidental death, is reanimated using lightning (á la Frankenstein) in order to keep their friendship alive.
Victor (voiced innocently by Charlie Tahan) is a bit of a strange kid. He loves making homemade movies. He’s quite the science nerd, and, while he doesn’t seem to have many friends at school, when he comes home, he knows he has the loving companionship of his dog Sparky to keep him company. However, this ranges far beyond just an owner-pet relationship. This boy’s dog is his best friend, and so you can understand the emotional toll it takes on him when his pal dies. Very quickly Burton is able to credibly build this bond to make it mean a great deal when it’s fractured, which makes Victor’s decision to try to bring Sparky back to life, no matter how crazy and ridiculous a plan it may be, that much more heartfelt.
Once successful, FRANKENWEENIE heads down the path of a kid doing his best to keep his reanimated dog a secret, because the quiet suburban town he lives in wouldn’t be able to handle the news of a zombie canine running around New Holland. Burton once again invokes this fear of what’s different in a place where everything seems very uniform – much like he did in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and, to an extent, BEETLEJUICE – and, in addition to using Danny Elfman’s score which has a SCISSORHANDS-like sound to it at times or even Martin Landau as the unrestrained science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who sounds an awful lot like Landau’s portrayal of Bela Legosi in ED WOOD (“But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people... a race of atomic supermen that will conquer the world!”), Burton seems to be resorted to some of his old tricks, but, unlike his recent attempts to copy himself, for FRANKENWEENIE, Burton is at least re-using the things that have worked extremely well for him in the past and continue to do so.
A lot of credit here on FRANKENWEENIE goes to screenwriter John August, who has crafted a remarkably funny and smart script for Burton to follow. The attention to detail in its nod to classic horror are brilliant, be it the Bride of Frankenstein, Igor or Mary Shelley's name itself, and, as Victor’s classmates begin to learn of what he was able to pull off and attempt to do it for themselves with other dead animals and pets, August slowly works the film’s dark tones into a third act free-for-all filled with such awesome madness, it brings about fun memories of GREMLINS once they’ve started multiplying.
The animation here is a strange balance between rugged and top shelf. Something like the crudity of Sparky’s design, which looks colored with pencil in spots, is a polar opposite to the careful articulation of Landau’s Rzykruski, who is fascinating to watch even when he’s only talking as his teeth have been given movement during the process. There is a rough around the edges quality to FRANKENWEENIE’s appearance that really works here and is more a charm of the world Burton has created than a distraction.
FRANKENWEENIE is a wonderful return to form for Burton, which brings about optimism that he’ll continue to make films that inspire him to do his best work – something we haven’t seen in far too long. You can usually tell when a filmmaker really has his heart and soul in a movie, and it couldn’t be more apparent with Burton on this project. Welcome back, Tim Burton of yesteryear. I missed you dearly. I hope you stick around for awhile longer.
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