Frankenweenie is immediately recognisable as a Tim Burton film. Its eerie stop-motion animation and its use of Danny Elfman’s vivid, sorrowful music is in line with Burton’s best and most representative work. The film tells the tale of a young boy and a reclusive genius who is fascinated by science, Victor Frankenstein, whose only friend is his pet dog, Sparky. Victor’s father pushes him to get out of his laboratory and take an interest in sport, and have a “normal” childhood. One day, Sparky is killed by a car whilst chasing a ball from a game of baseball and Victor, distraught, is subsequently unable to concentrate in class. He hits upon the idea of bringing Sparky back to life with electric currents, inspired by his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski. Mr Rzykruski’s appearance deliberately echoes that of Vincent Price, narrator of Burton’s short animation, Vincent (1982). Making use of the electrical storms famous in the fictional small town of New Holland, Victor manages to reanimate Sparky with his Dr Frankenstein-like equipment in the attic. Word soon spreads that Victor has harnessed this power and his fellow classmates become desperate to try it for themselves in time for the approaching science fair.
The film revisits Burton’s favourite American suburbia setting with its dark horror overtones. The animation was originally a short that Burton made in 1984 while working with Disney but it was rejected as being too “dark”. Indeed, it represents a return to form for Burton, echoing the atmosphere of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). In both Edward Scissorhands and Frankenweenie, Burton’s archetypal darkly expressionistic wide- eyed characters are set within the ornately pruned gardens in picture perfect neighbourhoods. Frankenweenie itself is filmed entirely in monochrome and nods to many classic horror texts: the appropriation of the name Frankenstein; the turtle named Shelley who transforms into a Godzilla-like monster; a vampire cat; the neighbour Elsa Van Helsing; even a character named Edgar E. Gore, a name which references both the generic stock character Igor and American gothic writers Edgar Allen Poe and Edward Gore. It is an absolute wonder to watch Burton’s creation, knowing that he pays homage to all his childhood favourites, returning to what he does best and fleshing out his short into a feature-length animation. This truly is Burton’s most Burtonesque film yet.
Tim Burton himself has always been a big fan of old horror films, as is evident from his film Ed Wood (1994), a comedy based on the life of a famously bad B-movie director. Frankenweenie has everything you would expect to see in the old classics, the black-and-white cinematography, the intense melodramatic music as the experiment starts, the monsters, and even a scene that should make you jump. If you are a lover of the traditions of horror, this is a film reminiscent of the greats and, in fact, compelled me to go home and put on my “Classic Monster Collection” which includes Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) – a film you can spot Victor’s parents watching with the frightening visceral music. Indeed, Elfman’s wonderful score contains musical memories of old horror films.
The voice-work is, again, very evocative of Burton’s oeuvre. The voice artists are well-chosen and fit right into the characters they are assigned to. Winona Ryder voices Elsa Van Helsing, a young girl who takes us back to Lydia from Beetlejuice (1998) while Martin Landau, who voiced Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, takes on the part of the science teacher in this film. Frankenweenie showcases all of the director’s obsessions and emphases in a single film, generating a sense of dark but childlike wonder; everything in this film is well thought-out and perfectly executed. Burton’s work is always a pleasure to watch, and I would argue that this is one of his best works to date.