This is Tim Burton’s animated adaptation of his own early work (a live-action short film from 1984 of the same name) – one that exhibited a style so dark that it ultimately got him fired from Disney, which subsequently launched his career as one of cinema’s master craftsmen. Frankenweenie, ironically a Disney feature, is presumably something of an apology from the super studio. Having stuck to his gothic guns, the Tim Burton we know today is a one-man brand, but as globally recognisable as Disney itself – at least to certain demographics.
All that said, where Burton’s brand was once a reliable source of inventive theme-park thrills and spills, his recent films have shown this reliability slowly turning into predictability. The announcement of the scraggy-haired sprite helming a title like Willy Wonka, Dark Shadows or Alice In Wonderland coupled with the names Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter inspires at least this reviewer to groan – rather than skip gaily – to the picture house. Not because the resulting movie will probably be poor, but because … well, I’d already seen it without seeing it. At least, that was the case until Frankenweenie.
Frankenweenie harkens back to a time when Burton wasn’t boring us with films made by his left hand, but when his filmmaking crackled with innovation and originality. The same criticism of predictability could, in fairness, still be levelled at this offering, but Burton hasn’t made a film so entertaining or affecting since Edward Scissorhands, which of his filmography, Frankenweenie most prominently resembles (although in truth, Edward Scissorhands would be more correctly labelled a direct descendant of the original Frankenweenie) with its conservative suburban neighbourhood and rows upon rows of identical 1950s-style houses. The girl next door is even voiced by the female lead of the same earlier film, Winona Ryder, whose casting might not exactly be surprising, but is a refreshing change from Bonham Carter.
The schoolboy protagonist Victor Frankenstein looks a lot like a post-op Michael Jackson with his pinched aquiline features. He’s a loner with a penchant for sciences and filmmaking. When Victor’s dog Sparky dies in an unfortunate incident involving a baseball and a high-speed automobile, a heartbroken Victor puts his science skills to good use and revives the little critter to wreak havoc and mayhem on the tiny community of New Holland. Any horror fan familiar with James Whale’s wonderful Frankenstein (1931) and its equally brilliant sequel Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) will not be surprised to learn that the inconspicuous windmill looming over the small town features prominently in the film’s climax. This is perhaps the film most obviously referenced in Frankenweenie, but there are plenty more rewards for the slightly keener of viewers.
This is far from a perfect film, however. The narrative engine occasionally peters out, particularly at several points in which the audience alone becomes privy to Victor’s hidden science shenanigans in his parent’s attic. But then too often, in order for the plot to develop, we’re relegated to waiting for the narrative slack to pick up, for the necessary secrets to inevitably be exposed, either discovered by his parents, school friends or the townsfolk.
Burton’s filmmaking works best when he holds a critical mirror to contemporary society, after first lulling us into the kind of false security we normally associate with tentpole entertainment. In this respect, Frankenweenie may not be not as effective as Edward Scissorhands or Mars Attacks, but Burton the filmmaker is no longer on autopilot – he has been reanimated, he’s alive! And while this exquisitely designed, crisp black and white 3D animation is tailored for a family audience, his affinity for classic horror has rarely been so infectious.
Dir: Tim Burton; US animation/comedy/horror, 2012, 87 mins; Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Martin Landau
Premieres January 10