Is this Tim Burton's return to form or another Dark Shadows?
Let's be real: Tim Burton hasn't exactly been churning out hits lately. Between Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, it's hard to have a lot of faith in the man anymore. What seemed to be passion projects seem more and more to be sad shadows of his former work, the sort of things generally reduced to mockery. Seeing Burton revive an old project might have once been exciting, but now it brings with it the dread that something once cherished might be completely ruined by whatever it is that this man has become.
So what, then, is Frankenweenie? Disney fired Burton when he brought his original short to them, unsure of what to do with his odd stylistic choices and a zombified animal. Over twenty years later, the short is back in a full length, paid for by the team that rejected it initially. Was it Burton that changed, or simply the material? What would have to differ in order for Disney to change their minds? Would Burton fans rejoice at his return to form or sadly shake their heads yet again at his lack of inspiration?
As it turns out, Frankenweenie might be just what both Burton and Disney were looking for, and the audience comes out on top.
Frankenweenie follows young Victor Frankenstein, a student in the town of New Holland that totally isn't Burbank. Victor doesn't have many friends, but he finds solace in science and his canine companion, Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor is devastated. Instead of accepting the passing of his best friend, Victor uses his knowledge of science and the inherent spooky magic of his home town to bring Sparky back to life. When word gets out, the other children in town start to use Victor's newfound technique. Creatures revived from ambition are not the same as those brought back for love, and it's up to Victor and Sparky to keep New Holland safe.
Don't be fooled by the cheerful demeanor of the trailers: while the story has been altered to bring it to a full length, it still follows the general arc as Burton's original short. Sparky dies. They don't dance around it. It is heart-wrenching, and you will most likely cry. If you are a dog owner, you will definitely cry. That isn't to say Frankenweenie is a tragedy, though. The movie is, overall, very positive, and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. The homages to classic monsters are fantastic, with pretty much every monster you could hope for included in the mix.
Skeptics of Tim Burton's recent work will be relieved to know that neither Jonny Depp nor Helena Bonham-Carter make a vocal appearance. The cast includes some big-name talent from Burton's previous casts of characters, including Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice. The larger performances were given to fresher faces, and their performances were very solid. Frankenweenie is unique in that one of the most important characters has no voice, and relies entirely on animation to convey emotions. Even without a voice actor, Sparky is a very good boy.
The score is fantastic. Danny Elfman returns as one would expect for a Burton movie, but his music is somewhat subdued, enhancing the scenes without stealing the scene. The only questionable choice is a song about the town sung by Winona Ryder's character. The lyrics are hilarious, but Ryder is not exactly a vocal artist. Still, the song works for what it is, and the rest of the music fits perfectly with the offbeat environment.
The movie is absolutely gorgeous. Burton's drawing style is stunning, and it comes to life wonderfully in the movie. The characters have a charming sort of creepiness to them, oddly proportioned and standing out against a classic backdrop of fifties suburbia. They are true to Burton's original art style, down to the etched-in pencil lines around their oversized eyes.
I adore stop motion, and Frankenweenie is no exception. The animation is amazingly crisp and fluid, and the odd character design makes them defy gravity in every shot. A lot of work was done in post to remove visible rigging, but there's no mistaking that handmade touch. Watching fur move at the brush of an invisible thumb is just as magical as ever, and it's fun to spot the different methods of facial animation that varies from character to character.
Generally, I'm not a big fan of seeing post-converted 3D, but Frankenweenie makes the jump very well. There are only a couple of gimmicky, in-your-face effects, and they're pretty minor. The 3D adds depth to the sets and helps with immersion. If you have a few extra bucks to spend on seeing it in 3D, go for it, but you're not missing much if you don't.
If you're bringing the kids, be prepared for a long conversation afterward. Even though Sparky is brought back to life, one of the major themes is learning to accept the passing of a friend. It's not an easy topic for anyone, let alone a child, and they might be pretty confused. The movie tries to downplay the scientific aspect of Sparky's revival by mentioning the mystical aspects of the town of New Holland, but I wouldn't be surprised if a very young child still thought plugging a dead hamster into a socket might work.
Frankenweenie is well worth seeing in theaters, but make sure to bring the tissues with you. If Tim Burton can keep putting out work like this, there's plenty to look forward to.