by Michelle McGlynn
Tim Burton’s last few films have been disheartening to say the least, but he has returned to form somewhat with Frankenweenie. Not his best film by far, but it would appear that remaking his own short as a feature length stop-motion film has rekindled something in Burton.
Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a sheepish, intelligent and creative young boy growing up in a suburb called New Holland. His best and only friend is his adorable but not too bright dog, Sparky. Victor spends most of his time doing science experiments or creating super 8 horror films starring Sparky. But when the playful dog chases a ball out into the road and is hit by a car, Victor is devastated by the loss. A lesson from his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) inspires Victor to attempt to reanimate Sparky using the electricty from a lightening bolt. Although Sparky returns a little banged up and prone to shedding body parts, Victor is elated by the return of his best friend. He does his best to keep his back-from-the-dead dog a secret but it doesn’t take long before his classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) discovers his secret. Victor’s bid to keep Sparky a secret results in his scientific discovery falling into the wrong hands. Can Victor fix the disastrous consequences of his discovery and keep his best friend too?
It is not hard to find the glimmer of Burton-from-times-gone-by in Frankenweenie. The film emanates Burton. From the stop-motion characters with their saucer eyes and elongated limbs to the dark tones of the people and their surroundings. A darkness which is beyond the black and white the film is shot in. From the macabre story to the prerequisite Danny Elfman score. All of the Burton characteristics are present and accounted for. This is not a bad thing because when Burton can infuse these wearisome ingredients with an entertaining, humorous and high-energy story that is when he is at his best. This is precisely what he achieves here. Though some of the true darkness which once inhabited his films remains lost, there are plenty of ghoulish delights to make up for it.
Frankenweenie, an obvious homage to Frankenstein, also serves as a vehicle for Burton to pay tribute to the classic horrors which have influenced his works. The film is heaving with allusions, tributes and references to horror films, their monsters, their authors and their actors. A certain amount of the humour relies on your knowledge of these references. In addition to the classics, there are various allusions to Burton’s own back catalogue.
The film has numerous hilarious moments amid all the heartbreak and the uncanny. It is essential that you be willing to embrace the absurd to enjoy the over-the-top comedy in Frankenweenie. There is Edgar ‘E’ Gore a hunchbacked, sniveling, half-witted classmate who desperately wants to team up with Victor. Edgar’s blackmailing of Victor and bragging to his other classmates are comical. Perhaps the most absurd member of the cast is another classmate of Victor’s identified only as Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara). Weird Girl has a very special cat, Mr. Whiskers. The girl and her cat are utterly ludicrous but it is hard to deny that they are hilarious.
There is a pleasant surprise to be found not in who Burton has cast but rather who he has not cast in this film. Frankenweenie is the first film not to feature Johnny Depp since 2003 and the first not to feature Helena Bonham Carter since 1999.
Catherine O’Hara provides Weird Girl with a voice that is equal parts dippy and creepy, giving her a perfectly eccentric feel. O’Hara also appears as Mrs. Frankenstein and the Gym Teacher.
Winona Ryder proves that she will never lose the ability to channel a sullen, morose teenager. The combination of her voice, her personality and her look make Elsa Van Helsing and Lydia Deetz practically indistinguishable.
Martin Landau is simply delightful as he does his best Vincent Price to play Mr. Rzykruski. Landau lends his character both distinction and humour, blending the two nicely.
Charlie Tahan capably voices Victor. He expresses Victor’s feelings of loss without being melodramatic. While Atticus Shaffer was simply born to play the Igor character.
Frankenweenie is quintessentially Burton, but it lacks that certain je ne sais quoi that would make it truly great. Nevertheless, it is thoroughly entertaining. The film is visually striking as we have come to expect. Frankenweenie never loses its momentum, its sense of humour or its appetite for all things ghastly. It marks a most welcome return to greatness for Tim Burton.