After the one-two punch of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, it looked like Tim Burton, the once brilliant director behind Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, had finally succumbed to the allure of the multi-million dollar pay check. Whereas Burton’s classic early films were all unmistakably the product of his distinct sensibility— dark, witty, visually flamboyant—Alice and Dark Shadows were bland, soulless, CGI-heavy fast food tie-ins that could have been directed by anyone. No other Hollywood filmmaker, not even George Lucas, has ever managed to sell-out quite as brazenly.
With Frankenweenie, a stop-motion re-make of the 1984 short that launched his career, Tim Burton the Artist makes significant strides against Tim Burton the Hack for Hire. Although not entirely successful, it’s unlikely that anyone will accuse Burton of making the movie just for the money. Indeed, the fact that the movie is in black and white will probably alienate most of its target audience, who will most likely attribute the lack of colour to an error with the projection, all but guaranteeing that the film only makes 1/1000th of what Alice in Wonderland made on its opening day. Which is a shame because Frankenweenie is unlike anything you’ll see at the multiplex this year.
In the brilliant opening scene, we are plunged into the middle of a homemade 8mm film directed by Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), one of Burton’s quintessential loner-heroes. The movie uses hand-drawn backdrops, toy soldiers, and a pet dog to great effect. It’s a loving, infinitely charming recreation of the kinds of movies that Burton used to make as a kid, and it alone is worth the price of admission. Not since the opening of Up! has an animated movie so effectively evoked a sense of nostalgia for a period that its target audience never lived through.
From there, we are introduced to day to day life in New Holland, a typically spooky Burtonian 1950s suburb populated mostly by overweight grotesques. It’s the sort of town where all the kids are obsessed with the science fair, cat’s have prophetic dreams, and epic lightning storms occur every night (something to do with the town’s windmill). It’s been a long time since a mainstream movie has immersed us in a world so strange and vivid.
During a Little League game, Victor’s dog runs off to chase the ball and is run over by a car. Using the town’s nightly lightning storms to his advantage, Victor—like Mary Shelley’s protagonist before him—manages to successfully re-animate the corpse. The only problem: All the other kids in the town, desperate to take first prize in the science fair, try to one-up Victor by conducting their own experiments with animals and lightning. Refreshingly, the movie turns Mary Shelley’s annoying anti-science message on its head, offering instead an inspiring endorsement of science and the scientific method—something which, in an age where half of all Americans still reject the theory of evolution, we really can’t have enough of.
Like Burton’s best films, Frankenweenie is stunning to look at. From the opening frame, Burton plunges you into a strange, dream-like world that’s easy to get lost in. Unfortunately, Burton the dramatist isn’t quite operating at the same level as Burton the visual stylist, and the third act of the film—despite the appearance of a giant, Mothra-like turtle—is kind of tedious. Even at just 87 minutes, the movie feels at least 20 minutes too long.
Still, there’s a lot to like here, especially for those of us who assumed that after Alice in Wonderland Burton had been kidnapped and replaced by a remarkably life-like robot. The reasons why Burton decided to put his name on Alice and Dark Shadows may never be known, but Frankenweenie offers definitive proof that kidnapping had nothing to do with it—the director of Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow is still alive and well. He may not be at the top of his game, but the fact that he’s even in the game is in and of itself kind of remarkable.