Simply put, Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s best film in years. After years of garish garbage like Alice In Wonderland or rote, by-the-numbers affairs such as Dark Shadows, Burton has reclaimed the magical world of the whimsical and macabre simply by returning to personal territory and delivering a charming, sweet, gross, beautiful and deeply entertaining animated adventure in Frankenweenie.
Here Burton returns to the tactile, physical world of stop-motion animation, the too-little used form utilized so brilliantly in his classic production The Nightmare Before Christmas and decently in his cute but inferior Corpse Bride. Frankenweenie isn’t up to Nightmare snuff, but it’s a big step up from Bride, and anything he’s been doing this past decade. First off, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Not only is Burton returning to stop-motion, which gives the animation a weight and delightful oddness that pixels often can’t match, but he’s also returning to the realm of 3D (after Alice) and black and white (seen in Ed Wood), and the combo effect of all three works to glorious, transporting effect.
The 3D is vertiginous and immersive, drawing you deep into hits morbidly warm depths, and the chiaroscuro is a silvery wonder, expressionistic plays of shadow and light. But all the visual and aesthetic beauty in the world means diddly squat if the story doesn’t draw you in on its own, and Frankenweenie does just that. For the first time in a long while, Burton seems alive and present with his material, not merely making a detached, soulless caricature of what audiences expect a Burton film to be. That’s because the director has not only adapted the film from one of his very first productions (a mid-80s live action short of the same name), but has filled out the details by plunging into his own childhood memories, sketching out the story of a proud misfit, a science nerd and monster movie lover, and his only friend — his beloved dog Sparky.
When Sparky dies in a tragic, but all too recognizable accident (one of a few scenes that made me, admittedly, well up), young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), inspired by his new Vincent Price lookalike science teacher (Martin Landau), devises an experiment to bring his pet back to life. The experiment works — all too well. Soon Sparky gets loose and Victor’s creepy classmate Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Schaeffer) spills the beans to the neighborhood kids, who all copy Victor’s experiment. Only theirs have more monstrous results.
Frankenweenie morphs from an elegant tale of an outsider and his dog into a loony creature feature that allows Burton to pay homage to the monster movies he adored as a kid (and, in at least a few instances to Gremlins), and he makes the transition with aplomb. the director fully understands what it means to be a pet owner, the love and loss that having an animal companion can bring, especially for a young child. He gets the interactions between children and the clueless well meaning-ness of parents who don’t fully understand their children. He gets in sly digs at anti-intellectualism and the fear of science that seems to be plaguing large swaths of society, and he still delivers the laughs and monster movie goodness while being a wholly recognizable entry into the Burton universe.
Granted, Frankenweenie isn’t perfect. Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara are wasted in roles as Victor’s parents (though they get to shine in other, subsidiary parts) and Winona Ryder is given voice to a character that ulitmately makes little sense to the narrative as a whole, and some storytelling elements seemed a tad rushed. But all those are minor quibbles in the long run, as Frankenweenie represents the return of a filmmaker who’s been too long-lost in the cinematic wilds. Here’s to hoping he can retain that streak, staying to the idiosyncratic, unusual and personal projects he’s so good at and avoiding the siren call of easy money and haggard blockbuster filmmaking.