As a director, is there anything worse than a creative dry spell? Throughout much of the late 80’s and 90’s, Tim Burton was Hollywood’s most daring and demented visionary with films like Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands. Flash-forward a couple of decades and his name has become synonymous with films that provide nothing more than style over substance. Between directing the dreadful Dark Shadows and producing the abysmal Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012, in particular, has been Burton’s deadliest year thus far. And yet, just when you thought Burton was running on empty, he roars back to ghoulish life, in the month of Halloween no less, with Frankenweenie, a freaky little tale with spooks and heart to spare. Get ready, folks, this is the best thing Burton has done in years!
Turning his own 1984 live short into a feature length stop-motion marvel, Burton is in prime form in Frankenweenie, the story of a lonely, social outcast who resurrects his dog from the dead. In other words, this is typical Burton territory and the film is a delightful culmination of the director’s best work. Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s creepy stop-motion (made all the more haunting and bleak in black-and-white); like Edward Scissorhands, the setting is a monotonous suburban community full of wacky supporting characters (a hunchback classmate named Edgar and a wide eyed girl known only as Weird Girl are nightmarishly odd); like Beetlejuice, there’s oblivious parents and the hiding of the dead dog in the family attic; like Ed Wood, there’s the collision of homage and satire in the film’s third act when numerous other pets are brought back to life and become monstrous odes to everything from B-movie aliens to the legendary Godzilla. There’s even key Burton actors lending their voices (Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau), a heartwarming, fairy-tale score by Danny Elfman, and though Johnny Depp is absent this time around, I’ll be damned if the main character, Victor, doesn’t look like a young, stop-motion version of the longtime Burton collaborator.
Whereas Burton’s recent films have solely provided the director’s trademark sense of Goth, Frankenweenie excels by giving us a story with real heart, adding a humane pulse to all the macabre theatricality. Part of that has to do with the humble voice cast (no one does tender better than O’Hara), but most of it has to do with the most daring decision Tim Burton has made in years: keep things simple. Burton’s latest efforts (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows) have been over-the-top and candy coated with CGI, but Frankenweenie is brisk, straightforward, and right-to-point and is all the more effective because of it. Of course there’s visual wonder to be found – the resurrection of Sparky the dog is thrillingly electric – but at its core Frankenweenie is nothing more than the story of a boy and his dog, and if you’re in any way a dog and/or pet lover (I know I am) there’s no way this little tale won’t tug at the heart strings.
With a simple story of friendship and loss, Frankenweenie provides style and substance to crowd-pleasing effect. This is the sole reason why it’s always heartbreaking and aggravating when Burton gives us movies like Dark Shadows, for under that oddball shell of his there’s a real emotional storyteller and Frankenweenie finally lets us see him in all of his sensitively spooky glory. Between this haunted dazzler and the equally brilliant ParaNorman, this has been one hell of a year for stop-motion animation and I couldn’t be happier. Much like Sparky, Tim Burton’s directorial creativity is revitalized in Frankenweenie and it’s spellbinding to watch; welcome back, Mr. Burton, welcome back!
Review by Zack Sharf