Review: 'Frankenweenie' may be one of Tim Burton's most personal films
Sometimes, decoding a director's work comes down to one movie in their career, and the case could be made that with "Frankenweenie," Tim Burton has finally created the Rosetta Stone that perfectly encapsulates his preoccupations, his inspirations, and his own peculiar world view. There is biography contained in many of his films, bits and details and a perspective on certain things like suburbia and childhood, and "Frankenweenie" could well turn out to be one of his most essential films in any discussion of who he is as an artist.
John August wrote the script for this new version of the film, but this project sprang from Burton's head and heart. The original version, the live-action short film he made during his first tenure at Disney in the early '80s, was released briefly to theaters attached to the front of "The Black Cauldron," the studio's flawed-but-fascinating foray into fantasy. Along with his other short film, "Vincent," they felt less like auditions for commercial filmmaking and more like art therapy on Disney's dime. The feature version seems to merely expand on the ideas that were already present in the short, but in ways that flesh things out nicely.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a slightly movie-mad kid with a love for science. His one true friend in the world is his dog Sparky. Victor's Mom (Catherine O'Hara) and Dad (Martin Short) are both supportive of his hobbies, although Dad wishes that Victor had more friends and that he rounded out his home-made monster movies and scientific experiments with just a little more baseball. Victor's surrounded by weirdos at his school, including the smug Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) and Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) and the aptly named Weird Girl (Dee Bradley Baker), who believes that her cat poops out psychic warnings about major events. It's hard for Victor, but occasionally he meets someone who seems to be proof of a larger, more interesting world away from the small town of New Holland, like the new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau).
In general, parents shouldn't worry about the content of the film. While it does deal quite directly with the trauma of seeing a beloved pet die, it's handled with taste and tact, and it acknowledges how serious that is for a child. Victor lives up to his last name, though, when he retrieves Sparky from the pet cemetery where he's been buried and, using a cleverly-detailed lab that pays glorious, touching homage to the lab from the original Universal take on "Frankenstein," he brings Sparky back to life. Of course this is a bad idea in general, particularly when surrounded by the small-minded people in his town and the many creepy kids who decide that they want Victor's secret for themselves, only to end up creating monsters as a result. The film wants to make you laugh way more than it wants to make you scream, and it is packed with visual jokes, sly verbal wit, and a whole lot of sincere sentiment.
"Frankenweenie" is a gorgeous film, and I think it's appropriate that Burton turned to stop-motion to bring it to life this time. The live-action version was well-staged and while he was still new to directing actors, he got some pretty good performances out of everyone. Here, by creating such a visually stylized world with such radially designed characters, he's able to make them look on the outside the way he perceives them on the inside. Sparky himself benefits enormously from this approach. It's hard to get a dog wearing make-up appliances to do much of anything on command, but this version of Sparky gives a perfect performance while also seeming to be very honestly realized. The black-and-white world allows Burton to build in any number of references to the black-and-white worlds that he must have loved as a child. The Universal monster movies, "Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari," and "Gamera" all references here, with dozens of small jokes hidden in the movie, nods that are just there to make Burton happy. Yet this is perhaps the least indulgent of his recent movies, thanks in part to the simplicity of the story and due also to just how personal much of this feels. Burton doesn't have time to just goof off with high-profile actors the way he does on his giant live-action films. In animation, everything is such a specific choice that it feels tighter, more controlled.
More than anything, what "Frankenweenie" has on its side is charm. This is a charming film, even if it is fairly slight, and a real pleasure to watch. There is a tactile quality to seeing these puppets in 3D. I remember going to the set of "The Corpse Bride," and touring the place where McKinnon & Saunders made them all. These creations are exquisite up close, and when you look at the details in the paint jobs or the handmade clothing or whatever, it's remarkable. Here, it feels like you can reach in and touch the sets and the characters. Burton uses the 3D like a View Master, creating a sense of depth, and he gets so close to the action that it is immersive and even somewhat dreamy at times. This may not be his very best film (that would still be "Ed Wood," no doubt about it), but it could be his most personal. At any rate, it is a lovely reminder of why Tim Burton's films can be wonderful, and should have a long life as a frequently-revisited Disney classic.
"Frankenweenie" opens October 5, 2012.