Genre(s): Comedy, Animation, Horror
Director(s): Tim Burton
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Is it safe to say that Dark Shadows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland were terrible? I don’t think I’ve ever quite enjoyed a Tim Burton-directed film, besides the original Batman, Beetlejuice and moments in Big Fish. That being said, his animated films which he’s been associated with tend to be incredible and exciting, breathing fresh air into the stop-motion genre with each film. I didn’t enjoy Corpse Bride but The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach remain classics for me. The most recent of which was 16 years ago, begging the question, what has been going on with Burton? To say he’s lost his creative spark probably wouldn’t be too far off, but it’s something more. Every film of his has been going through the motions, but they still retain that Tim Burton-vibe so it has always seemed like Burton has just been prying for cash with every film. Well, while he may still be milking his movies for all they’re worth (or more than that), he finally has released a film I can get behind.
Apparently all it took was for Burton to look back into the past and pull up some of his old material for a good movie to surface. If you’ve followed Tim Burton’s career, you probably have seen his original 1984 short called Frankenweenie, a film that evokes the style of Burton completely. It was an omen of what was to come from him. Coming back 28 years later, Burton decided to revisit his old short and turn it into a feature length film. The concept stays entirely the same: Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) loves his dog Sparky (Frank Welker) more than anything in the world and when he dies, he doesn’t want to move on and decides to resurrect his dog. What the feature length film is able to do is it takes the scope and goes bigger with it, tackling monster movie after monster movie. The third act of the film is almost a barrage of ‘Know Your Scary Movie’ trivia, not giving much uniqueness to the story. But that’s fine, because the way everything is tied together works perfectly within the confines of the film. I noticed one plot detail didn’t get answered by the end of the movie, but it’s a minor detail that doesn’t affect anything by not being solved.
One of the reasons I think this film had the impact it had on me is because of the fact that they used stop-motion animation instead of the live-action that was used for the short. It’s also that kind of clunky stop-motion that makes it feel more authentic in the end, rather than having smoothed over animations that deprive from the appeal of stop-motion. The aesthetics of the film really are what make the movie so charming though. Shot in black-and-white, the movie has that old school horror film feel to it, and seeing as how Frankenweenie is an entire collection of homages to previous movies of the genre, it fits the world Burton has created so perfectly. The music is also beautifully composed by Danny Elfman, as always, and even has little reminiscent touches of scores from the associated horror movies mixed into his own original compositions.
But nothing is more important to this film than the attachment we get to the characters of this film. It’s easy to get attached to Victor and Sparky’s relationship right from the beginning, and I definitely had my emotions hit twice during the film because of how sad the film can get. Everything is working against you, whether it be a morose score by Elfman, the grim black-and-white of the film, the impact of the scene on other characters, or just the absolutely dreadful scene itself. The film walks a fine line between being a kids film and being more adult-oriented, but I think it walks it hesitantly. The fact that they build the relationship between the viewer and Sparky so much then kill him (only to resurrect him later of course) may be too much for some kids to handle. There are other characters in this film though, all sort of lending to a stereotype or cliche from the monster movies they originate from. There’s Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), the creepy classmate who aims to be Frankenstein’s partner and Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder), a girl who is timid but seems to be infatuated with Frankenstein.
There’s also some heavy racism in the film, with Toshiaki and his Dad being the typecast Asian family that has to win the science fair, love their monster movies, and are extremely smart. But seeing as how the film is set around 1942 (there’s a marquee that says Bambi is coming soon) it can be slightly forgiven, only because it’s a moment in history where that kind of stereotype was prevalent. There are also several messages this film has in it that definitely still ring true today (a meeting between school staff and parents about how science is bad because they don’t understand it comes to mind), and will likely always be the case in the future.
I think that’s what helps make the film more of a classic than perhaps it could have been. The aesthetic is a more updated take on those older black-and-white films, most of which still hold up today, and it pays homage to so many classics that it’s a great place to go just to get your monster fix. Sure, it almost becomes way too heavy-handed in its references, but there’s so much charm in how they’re presented that it’s hard to dismiss the film. There’s a uniqueness to the movie that I cannot wait to revisit in the future, perhaps making it a must-watch every Halloween.
The only question now that remains is whether Tim Burton has learned something from this experience and will be able to follow it with another great film, as opposed to going back to the soulless stuff he was doing before. His absurdity and randomness is always welcome in our world, but he needs to keep the creative juices flowing and really work hard on keeping that absurdity cohesively written, and developed thoroughly. I love when Burton takes us into these new, weird worlds, but he never seems to deliver an engaging experience when he does (lately). If anything Frankenweenie is an analogy to Burton’s career, with the career being Sparky, and Burton being Victor. In order to keep his career going, he’s going to need to keep giving him attention and some of that creative spark every once in a while.