Burton’s Back

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara

It’s been a long time since Tim Burton directed anything worthwhile. You have to go back almost 10 years, to 2003’s Big Fish, to find a film of his that isn’t trite, self-indulgent, and filled with entirely too much Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. He seemed to be an artist out of ideas, and the news that he was reworking his own early experiment, the 1984 live action short Frankenweenie, as a stop-motion animated feature, only served as further evidence.
     Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong, though, and although this new version of Frankenweenie doesn’t match the inventiveness and heart of Burton’s best work, such as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, it still represents a marked return to form.
     In the kooky, small town of New Holland, young Victor Frankenstein [Charlie Tahan] spends most of his time with his beloved dog, Sparky. When Sparky is killed by a car, Victor takes inspiration from his science teacher, Mr Rzykruski [Martin Landau], and harnesses the power of electricity to resurrect his four-legged friend. Everything’s fine – well, as fine as the presence of a resurrected dog will allow – until Victor’s classmates, a motley collection of mad scientist caricatures, decide they want the secret of Sparky’s revival for their own purposes.
     Frankenweenie contains many of the tropes and stylistic flourishes that are synonymous with Burton, but there’s a freshness here that we haven’t seen in a long time. It feels like Burton is actually making a movie for himself, and not simply parroting the house style of the ‘Tim Burton Brand’. The animation is gorgeous, simultaneously precise and delightfully handcrafted in appearance, and shot in rich, vibrant black and white. The voice talent is on target, with both Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara filling multiple roles, while Burton veteran Winona Ryder gives a warm turn as Elsa Van Helsing, Victor’s quasi-love interest.
     What really pops, however, is the way in which Burton wears his genre influences on his sleeve. The obvious touchstone here is James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, which is playfully and repeatedly lampooned, but the whole sweep of Universal’s ‘30s horror movies get a look-in, as does the ‘50s and ‘60s output of Britain’s Hammer Films. Japanese kaiju films – think Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera – also get a look in. The film is drenched in the ephemera of yesteryear’s horror, and genre fans will have fun trying to pick out every nod and wink.
     The film’s biggest strength is also its chief failing, commercially speaking. It’s hard to imagine Frankenweenie – a black and white paean to Burton’s childhood obsessions, including more than a few moments that might be a touch too scary for the very young – playing too well to an audience of modern children. Still, if that’s the price we have to pay to see Burton firing on more than one cylinder again, then so be it.
      This is a definite step in the right direction, and lapsed Burton fans should feel relieved.

 (First published in X-Press Issue 1341 24/10/2012)

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