After the disappointment of Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie represents a return to the creative well for Tim Burton, and a retreat to his roots: stop motion animation. As Burton fans will already know, Frankenweenie is a feature-length adaptation of his 1984 short film of the same name, in which a young Victor Frankenstein – here cast as an ordinary school kid growing up in contemporary America – brings his dog back from the grave using the power of science.
Before he branched out into live-action filmmaking, Burton was first and foremost an artist and animator, and the macabre style of his early work – the animated short Vincent, for example – informed the look of his 80s and early 90s Hollywood hits, particularly Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands. With these breakout movies, Burton established a style that could be described as Edward Gorey’s grotesque faux-Victorian storybooks brought into Reagan-era suburbia. Gradually, though, Burton drifted from the immediately recognisable style of those early films, and into the more generic (though hugely successful) arena of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland.
While Disney’s marketing department wrestle with the difficulties of marketing a black-and-white theatrical release (Burton is one of the few directors, aside from Scorsese and Spielberg, who can get away with such an enterprise), some wondered whether the delightful 30-minute short from the 80s could withstand the stretch to feature length.
The good news, first of all, is that Frankenweenie looks gorgeous. Burton’s distinctive character designs are evident in every frame, and there’s a pleasing earthiness to the stop motion production that’s actually brought out by its stereoscopic presentation – yes, this really is a film that benefits from the introduction of 3D. Frankenweenie’s use of the process doesn’t necessarily highlight scale or depth – as, say, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon or Avatar did – but texture.
Stripped back as they are to light and shade, the best black-and-white movies have always possessed a sumptuous, tactile sense of texture in any case (just look at the gritty patina of the post-war landscape of The Third Man), but the combination of expertly lensed 3D and monochrome in Frankenweenie allows the eye to feast on every blade of grass and rusted pipe.
Although movies such as Coraline and ParaNorman are wonderfully accomplished, there’s a pristine quality to their productions that almost removes them from the realms of stop motion animation; the medium needs a slight handmade quality to make it truly sing. It’s what we got in Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton conceived and produced, although didn’t direct), and it’s what we get in subtle yet generous quantities in Frankenweenie.
It’s a movie made with love and utmost care, but at the same time, it’s mildly thrilling (at least to this writer) to note the occasional ruffle of fabric on a character’s shirt, or the rare shimmer in the soil at a character’s feet – telltale reminders that what you’re watching has indeed been fashioned from the hands of human beings, one frame at a time.
In this regard, Frankenweenie’s Mary Shelley/James Whale-inspired story is perfect for the medium. Just as the young Victor (Charlie Tahan), grieving after a road accident kills his dog Sparky in a baseball-related incident, brings his pet back to life in a thunder storm, so Burton and his army of artists bring the characters of Frankenweenie to life, frame by frame.
Burton’s love for horror and sci-fi is constantly in evidence. Victor’s science class is populated by spooky fellow pupils who look as though they’ve wandered in from Universal’s horror back catalogue. Victor’s science teacher, Mr Ryzkruski, is a lofty-foreheaded Eastern European professor with the face of Vincent Price and the voice Martin Landau, who reprises his sublime Bela Lugosi impression from Ed Wood. In one truly funny scene, one of Victor’s classmates displays a talent for predicting the future by studying the shapes of her cat’s excrement.
After establishing its suburban Frankenstein theme, Burton takes us on strange tangents. Some of them could be described as padding to draw Frankenweenie out to a feature length, but they’re still unexpected, funny and delightful.
Although all the characters in the movie are captivating in their own way, particularly Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), an Igor-like classmate, and Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder), Victor’s quiet next-door neighbour, the star of the film is Frankenweenie himself. Full of energy and expressive movement, he’s a truly engaging creation.
A true return to form for Burton, Frankenweenie deserves to do well – I only hope that its black-and-white presentation doesn’t deter family audiences from seeing it. Ironically, it’s the most colourful movie Burton’s made in years.
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