by Paul Deeter
In 2012 was suffering from falling into the has-been category, resting on the laurels of some excellent classic feature films. The movies he excelled at in the 80s, including Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands of which I did a write-up on its incredible lasting power. He was a household name, somewhat infamously with the misconception of his directorial work on The Nightmare Before Christmas which he only produced, and the silliness of his stamp of Burtonesque style. Before the Wes Anderson problem, there was an issue with Burton falling into sameiness and exploiting and overly weird style to mask weaker storytelling over time. I've talked to hardcore Burton fans and also uber-haters; there seems to be no in between for his audience. But it can't be said that he doesn't take risks. His movies sometimes qualify for incredible prestige flicks like Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. His polarizing decision to recast his actors again and again in his movies does sometimes work. Johnny Depp is utilized well in his musical role in Sweeney Todd. Helena Bonham-Carter is always a treat. But sometimes Burton pulls new tricks out of his sleeves like the astounding Big Fish which handled a son's reconcile with his dying father in a fairy tale-esque story for the ages. But with the exception of Corpse Bride in 2005, Burton hadn't directed his own stop-motion feature film, just worked as a producer behind the scenes on them. Frankenweenie is his 2nd feature film in the medium, and its his best in years.
Frankenweenie is based on a live action short by Burton, with the basic premise of a boy who loses his dog and in his remorse attempts to bring him back. The Frankenstein inspired story is translated with the same moralistic question of resurrection, but on a more kid-digestible scale. Burton was inquired to adapt it in 2012 with the idea that the format could convey and portray another level of emotion and depth that couldn't quite translate on film. Burton got the opportunity to return to the created storyboards and models prepared for the live action feature, breathing new life into the designs in preparation for their animations. With a true love letter to the craft, the film doesn't cheat by allowing any CGI shortcuts; everything you see is the product of a hardworking team strictly confined to stop motion technology.
The film follows Victor Frankenstein, a young kid who tragically loses his dog Sparky in an accident (coincidentally before his upcoming science fair) and he chooses to attempt to resurrect Sparky. In the style of the classic tale, Victor utilizes medieval and risky technology to resurrect Sparky, with the whole kite and lightning effect thrown in. While it may appear at first that the experiment did not work, Sparky wakes slowly to Victor's awe. The following story is the tale of Sparky (aptly named for his penchant to spark electricity from the nodes in his neck) and his hijinks in the quirky neighborhood built in this film. Victor does his best to keep Sparky a secret, while also researching the technology of revival in animals for better and worse. Neighboring bullies loom in on the discovery and eventually all heck breaks loose.
The movie does not break new ground narratively outside of its technical achievements. The comedic take on Frankenstein has been covered by many others including Mel Brooks with Young Frankenstein. But the love for the craft here, along with the sweet and sentimentality exploring a bond between a boy and his dog is enough to melt young hearts and old. Burton has sometimes risked his kids' movies to entering a dark territory that might polarize audiences from taking their kids. He seems to hit a nice middle-ground here. The setup is tragic and a little heavy for kids. But there are lots of moments of youth-addressed humor, including the dog's neck leaking when he drinks water.
After its production, Frankenweenie had a IMAX-3D release, a first for both a black and white film and also a stop-motion feature. It garnered many nominations including at the Academy and Globes. It also was a box office success and critically acclaimed at a steady 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Frankenweenie is proof that Tim Burton still has some tricks up his sleeves. He fell into uneven territory in the early 2010s, and maybe hasn't quite captured that magic ever since. But its nice to feel the kid in him come through when he returns to projects like the short live-action film he adapted here. Its nostalgia for his youth and nostalgia for the quality of his career. Original, sentimental and sweet without too much sugar, Frankenweenie may make you hug your own dog a little tighter while you watch.