Only Tim Burton could have got away with making Frankenweenie. I can just hear the pitch: “I want to shoot a feature-length, black and white, stop-motion animation about a dead dog”.
Frankenweenie, though, is undoubtedly the most lovingly crafted feature-length, black and white, stop-motion animation about a dead dog ever to grace the silver screen. It sees Burton at the top of his game, entirely in control of a medium thoroughly mastered from his work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. In fact, it ticks so many Tim Burton boxes that at times it plays a bit like a highlights reel of his greatest hits. The stretched and pinched hero bears more than a passing resemblance to The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Jack Skellington; New Holland, the small town where the drama takes place, is a carbon copy of the white picket-fenced suburbia of Edward Scissorhands; there is the obligatory melancholy girl-next-door character, who this time actually lives next-door. New Holland is filled with the saucer-eyed, conspicuously kooky, off-kilter sentimentalism that Burton has built a career on – and yet it feels remarkably fresh.
It follows the young science geek Victor, who refuses to accept his beloved dog Sparky is dead, despite having personally buried him following a car accident. Using his scientific prowess and harnessing the strange powers that surround New Holland, Victor jolts Sparky back from the dead – an idea that turns out better than you would have expected, until his classmates get wind of it.
The story plays second fiddle to the characters themselves. Victor’s classmates are a veritable who’s who of the horror world, loosely based on figures including Bram Stoker’s Renfield and Lurch from The Adams Family.
The attention to detail is incredible – it is gloriously apparent that Frankenweenie is crafted by someone with a burning, insatiable passion for cinema (the opening sequence sees Victor shooting Godzilla-esque home videos starring the soon-to-be-departed Sparky and the only live action footage comes when Victor’s parents are watching Christopher Lee as Dracula on the TV). In a career littered with pop culture references, Frankenweenie is Burton’s ultimate paean to schlocky 1950s B-movies and the era of Hammer Horror. The machine Victor builds in his attic to raise Sparky – a Rube Goldberg-esque creation – is particularly, wonderfully kitsch.
Thankfully, it is more than just a navel-gazing pat-on-the-back for geeks who can spot the references. Frankenweenie is also a touching tale of a child’s struggle to accept the concept of death. At times Burton pulls pretty hard on the heartstrings but the creepily comic script ensures it never slides into slushy sentimentalism.
It also looks fantastic: the animation is flawless and the high-contrast black and white stock gives the whole thing a surreal, sinister edge.
After the critical (if not box office) mauling Burton received for his previous two movies (Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland), Frankenweenie – a pure expression of his talents, unfettered by others’ material – has come at a good time, proving the king of kook hasn’t lost his touch.
First published in City A.M.