It’s October so it makes sense that we have a new Tim Burton movie. Burton is one of those filmmakers with an undeniably unique style in both the look and tone of his films as well as the subject matter he dabbles in. But while you can always recognize a Tim Burton film, it is fair to say that he is a polarizing filmmaker. You either like him or you don’t. I happen to appreciate when a filmmaker can inexorably define themselves with their work. But from a purely entertainment point of view, I’m not one you would categorize as a Tim Burton fan. Seldom are his movies as good as advertised and I find he often sacrifices quality storytelling for style. But he definitely has a following which is evident by the loads of money studios are willing to pay for his creations.
Now we have Burton’s latest concoction, in theaters just in time for Halloween. “Frankenweenie” has its roots in a 30 minute live-action short that Burton did in 1984 before his career took off. Here he adds an hour’s worth of story to make it a feature-length film. He also ditches the live-action and goes with stop-motion animation. This is familiar territory for Burton and you can see his fingerprints from the opening scene to the ending credits. But surprisingly there are some things that separate this movie from Burton’s past efforts – movies that didn’t work for me. More specifically, “Frankenweenie” is a rare film where Burton embraces his style but never allows it to overwhelm his story. Even more, I would go as far as to call this his best film since 1989’s “Batman”.
At its core, this is the story of a boy and his dog dressed up as a classic horror movie homage. Victor Frankenstein is a young introvert with an affection for science and movie making. He has no friends to speak of with the exception of his extremely loyal and loving dog Sparky. But one day Victor is devastated after Sparky is hit by a car and killed after chasing a ball into the street. Inspired by his eccentric science teacher and true to his last name, Victor sets out to use the power of electricity to bring his canine companion back to life. He succeeds but he soon learns there are some pretty serious consequences that effect the entire town.
It doesn’t take long to see an almost childlike enthusiasm from Burton that permeates every scene of this movie. There’s a playfulness to both his story and presentation that I’ve never seen from him before. But the movie also has a lot of heart as it deals with topics such as reclusive children and a child facing loss. It’s an incredibly straightforward and honest look as these issues that are comfortably nestled in Burton’s ghoulish and amusing landscape. But I have to admit that I was impressed with his heartwarming narrative and I can see where this film may connect with audiences unlike any of his other pictures.
But don’t think for a minute that “Frankenweenie” doesn’t have the dark, eerie aesthetic and offbeat imagination that you would expect from Burton. It’s very much a light-hearted horror film sprinkled with dashes of humor. There are so many nods to old horror pictures from the original 1931 “Frankenstein” to “Gremlins” to “Godzilla”. And perhaps my favorite tips of the hat comes through the assortment of side characters. There’s the strange girl next door named Elsa Van Helsing. There’s Victor’s creepy (and hilarious) hunchbacked classmate named Edgar E. Gore who sounds just like Peter Lorre. And then there’s my personal favorite Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s science teacher who’s an animated carbon copy of the great Vincent Price. Another big plus is the gorgeous, crisp stop-motion animation. I’m a big fan of the technique and here it shines especially in Burton’s glorious black and white.
I loved “Frankenweenie”. It’s a compact and well conceived movie that should strike a chord with all ages. I was absorbed in its authentic emotion, clever social satire, macabre sense of humor, and appreciation for the horror classics. I laughed, I jumped, I teared up. What’s most impressive is Burton’s creative self-control which allowed him to create a wonderful story while maintaining his own wacky sense of style. There’s just so much to like about “Frankenweenie” and it’s a particularly pleasurable experience for moviegoers like me who aren’t always fans of Tim Burton’s work. Sure it’s weird, spooky, and goofy. But it’s also beautiful, imaginative, and nostalgic and it’s a prime example of why we go to the movies.