Director Tim Burton has a history of making films about social outcasts and characters who learn that it’s ok to be different. Frankenweenie, based on a short film he created early in his career when working at Disney, which was rejected for being too dark. It acts as almost an overview of all of his previous canonical works and provides an open-minded look at the pressures of dealing with death at a young age.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a child growing up the 1950s. His parents Susan (Catherine O’Hara) and Edward (Martin Short) are concerned that he doesn’t get out enough, or play sports, instead choosing to spend his time in his room making super 8 films of his toys. Having been convinced to play baseball for the first time, Victor hits a home run, but his dog Sparky is hit by a car while chasing the ball. Remembering a lesson from his teacher Mr. Rzykruski’s (Martin Landau), Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse and uses electricity to try and bring his beloved dog back to life.
Shot in a beautiful monochrome (like old episodes of The Twilight Zone) and created using stop-motion techniques, Frankenweenie is a sumptuous and engaging animated film. Much like one of the year’s other animated releases Paranorman, it hints, nods and alludes to classic horror films in popular culture, such as Victor’s father resembling Boris Karloff or Mr. Rzykruski being an homage to Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price.
From a directorial standpoint, Frankenweenie is like a cross between classic Burton and old school Spielberg. The careful interplay between drama, comedy, gravitas and the Burtonesque gothic horror is handled masterfully, as you would expect. But it is in the purely dramatic scenes that Burton really stretches himself, avoiding clichÃ© or over-the-top gothic influence and plays them perfectly straight, which adds weight to their impact.
It is clear that this is not the Tim Burton who directed the candy-caned monstrosity that was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, this is a more considered and low-key Burton film and it stands out as one of his strongest works for years. Frankenwenie combines elements from past glories like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and manages to seem original despite being a hotchpotch of homages, which is especially impressive considering it was released after Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania, both of which cover similar ground. Not his finest work, but certainly better than anything he’s produced in years, Frankenweenie is pure Tim Burton.