Directed by Tim Burton
Tim Burton’s career is like an aging athlete that was once celebrated in his prime, only to languish in the shadow of disappointment as he struggles to make the best out of a situation that should, for all intents and purposes, have ended years ago. Then, out of nowhere, he knocks one out of the ballpark. Frankenweenie is Burton’s proverbial grand slam, a masterpiece of sentimentality that manages to tug at heartstrings while playing up the horror in a way that both children and adults can enjoy.
Frankenweenie, based on an early Burton short of the same name, follows young Victor Frankenstein (Tahan), a young child with an affinity for science and an extreme love for his dog, Sparky (Welker). After Victor is coerced into playing baseball by his father in exchange for participating in a school science fair, Sparky’s intrinsic ball-fetching abilities result in an untimely and exceedingly sad encounter with a car. Inspired by a classroom experiment wherein his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Landau) uses electricity to inspire movement in the muscles of a dead frog, Victor sets out to reanimate Sparky. And it works, with hilarious yet disastrous consequences.
Burton excels when he’s working off an original story, and Frankenweenie, which affords him the opportunity to let loose and truly enjoy himself, is no exception. Despite working off an incredibly thin and one-note premise, screenwriter John August manages to stretch it into an engrossing hour and a half that rides a wave of emotions while paying homage to Burton films of old and the classic horror films that inspired his more formative years. On the former, Burton handles the death scene with an even hand - it’s never easy seeing an animal die, and for those who have lost a pet, it’s likely it will draw a reaction you wouldn’t expect from a Tim Burton movie. On the latter he recalls classic monster movies, throwing hat tips to classics such as Gamera from the Godzilla series, Boris Karloff as the Mummy, and Christopher Lee as Dracula. It is, in essence, Burton’s childhood realized.
Much of the film’s draw is its characters, with at least one taken from The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, a book of stories and sketches from Burton, which propel the film forward and thus prevent it from hammering home the seemingly single-note premise. Each one is morbid in its own unique way, with the adults taking a backseat to Burton’s creations, expertly animated by Mackinnon & Saunders. Standing out from the pack of adults is Mr. Rzykruski, voiced by Martin Landau. With janky animation and a more angular design than the rest of the characters, he represents the rational in a world that is populated by the irrational. The film’s underlying theme is espoused in a brief moment of expository dialogue before settling back in and becoming a classic monster movie - it’s not heavy-handed, and it informs the rest of the story in a way that allows it to skirt the line between a movie with a message and a straightforward monster movie.
With a score by Danny Elfman that is both atypical and exactly what you would expect from the longtime Burton collaborator - the quirkiness is often subdued in favor of sinister-sounding cellos - and wonderful multiple performances by Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, and the young Charlie Tahan, Frankenweenie is a film that represents Burton at his best. It’s sweet, scary, funny, and one of the best Tim Burton films since Corpse Bride.
4 1/2 out of 5