The phrase “return to form” gets batted around a bit more than it should these days. When critics and movie buffs use this phrase it often means that a well known writer, actor, director, etc has gone back to doing something closer to what they are best known for. The phrase really should be “Hey! That guy I used to really like a lot is going back to doing stuff I like a lot!” Many people who see Frankenweenie will hail it as a “return to form” for director Tim Burton, and on a very base level it would be hard to argue.
Despite big box office numbers, moviegoers outside of the director’s most ardent supporters have been slightly apathetic towards Burton’s films, and while his last film, Dark Shadows, underperformed to a great degree, it did suggest that Burton’s sentimental side and his quirky side were finally starting to work hand in hand a lot more effortlessly (until the ending of that one, anyway). For great patches of that film, Burton was trying to give his audience a sense of familiarity akin to his work on Beetlejuice and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure borne from a television show he had a great sense of nostalgia for.
By remaking his own live action short from 1984, Burton flat out gives the audience almost exactly what they want and his styles finally gel together. It’s his best film overall since Edward Scissorhands and his most assured since Big Fish. Call it a “return to form” if you must, but in reality it’s just an excellent piece of work from a filmmaker who never went anywhere in the first place.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) wants to pursue more scientific endeavours in his school days, much to his baseball loving father’s chagrin, and his only friend is his loving and fiercely loyal pooch Sparky. One day following a tragic accident that kills Sparky, Victor takes a cue from his creepy, but knowledgeable science teacher (Martin Landau) to use electricity to try to resurrect Sparky from the dead. After his experiment works and despite Victor’s best efforts to keep his stitched up dog hidden away in his attic, his jealous classmates catch wind of Victor’s doings and look to his technology as a way of cheating to win their school’s science fair.
Right off the bat, Burton comes at the audience with open arms, lovingly showing an extremely cut rate monster/disaster film that Victor made with his dog as an unlikely villain. It sets the tone of the film perfectly: wistful for a time long since past, combined with perceived misunderstanding of a text, and a genuine love for the oddball characters that inhabit this world. The set up before the tragedy that sets the story in motion doesn’t linger longer than it needs to, but it’s handled so deftly that there probably hasn’t been a film as likely to get the audience choked up so quickly since Up.
Once the second act of the film is reached, Burton finally gets the chance to live out his dream of finally extending his early career short film to feature length, relishing in the chance to develop his characters, create a robust world for them to play within, and to update it to give it a sense of social relevancy and depth that the source material never had. In the town of New Holland, everyone is just slightly off or different in some way, but in the style of classic 50s and 60s sci-fi and horror tropes that will come back into play for the film’s defining, intense, and wildly referential third act. Aside from an obvious Igor substitute, there’s an Asian kid with a dead reptile, there’s a bungling doofus, a dead eyed Village of the Damned styled girl, and a stoic and most likely Russian boy. They are there to represent all of the film’s of Burton’s youth, while the hero comes from a time even further removed from all the side characters. Much like his leading character, Burton positions himself as someone literally saving monster movie cinema from obscurity and caricature, and damn if it doesn’t work perfectly; even if his more literal and direct onscreen surrogate comes in the form of the Winona Ryder voiced girl next door and voice of reason who simply takes everything as it comes.
Everything about the production feels more energized and less showy than anything Burton has worked on in recent years. The score, editing, cinematography, animation (in gorgeous black and white 3D that utilizes over a thousand shades of grey alone), and attention to detail make it easy to overlook the fact that the final act simply tries to reference as many classic films in horror history as possible. But even then as the film starts referencing everything from Godzilla and Hausu to Gremlins, CHUD, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s hard not to love the film if you’re a horror fan.
Handing off main screenwriting duties to frequent collaborator John August proves to be a wise move since no other writer seems as capable of tapping into Burton’s visual aesthetic as insightfully and excitingly. The voice cast also seems to be bringing a lot to the table, with Martin Short doing some great work in multiple roles (especially as Victor’s father and the nosy mayor that lives next door). Fellow SCTV alum Catherine O’Hara also puts in multiple performances including Victor’s mother, but absolutely steals the entire show as the aforementioned dead eyed girl constantly carrying around a cat that prophesizes tragedy every time it poops. Ryder and Landau also have their moments of brilliance, with the latter getting the biggest laughs in the film in a scene that’s quite ballsy in how openly it trashes creationist philosophy.
While the film undoubtedly comes from the mind of Tim Burton, it must sound an awful lot like a review for the similarly themed (and still just slightly better) ParaNorman, but seeing both back to back would make for an astoundingly entertaining double bill that covers a lot of similar emotional ground in their message of tolerance to the stranger people around us. Burton hasn’t seemed this engaged and open to pleasing audiences in ages, and for that he deserves an immense amount of thanks. It’s one of the most pleasant surprises of the year and a definite treat leading into the Halloween movie season.