Oct. 03, 2012 - Issue #885: Fall Style 2012
Leave it to a return to the past, then, to give Burton some unexpected juice. Based on a short film he made before even his Beetlejuice days, and shot through with affection for the mid-century Hollywood horrors that are the bedrock of his style, Frankenweenie is lively and engaging in a way that Burton's recent work often misses in favor of set and makeup design; that a claymation kiddie romp feels less fussed-over and precious than Sweeney Todd says a lot about how style can become a trap.
Frankenstein by way of a boy and his dog, the film opens with a spryly sweet scene of young Victor making his pooch Sparky the star of a homemade '50s monster mash. That's just one of the ways they play across the similarly dated suburbs of New Holland—speaking of Burton tropes—until Sparky meets an untimely end via car bumper. But it is, of course, not an end: Victor's mother tries to soothe his broken heart by promising, "We'd bring him back, if we could," and he sets out to do just that, with the help of lighting, a car battery and just a little bit of patchwork on Sparky's tail. From there, it follows the familiar beats of Frankenstein, albeit with a slight twist in the form of a school science fair that has Victor's fellow students copying his sure-to-win experiment, with monstrous—and monster-movie-referencing— results.
The joys of Frankenweenie come in between its story beats, though. The mutants who make up Victor's class—in particular a bug-eyed blonde with a cat that uses its litter box as a crystal ball—resemble some of horror's oldest stars, and each are good for a laugh, particularly when it comes time for the climax. Better still are the bits of sweetness that wind through the black-and-white world, from Victor's very genuine interactions with his rein-canined best friend, to a nice little tribute to Vincent Price, who lends his visage to Victor's mentor, a science teacher run out of town by the myopic townsfolk.
The appearance of Price calls back not only to the arch, campy horror stories woven through Frankenweenie's DNA, but also to another early Burton film, Edward Scissorhands: as with that classic, the basic, but unmistakable message here is that you shouldn't be afraid to follow what you love, even if it makes you an outcast. Burton's established enough that he doesn't exactly have that worry anymore, but the proof of that philosophy's success is nevertheless crafted right in to Frankenweenie's clay: the copious callbacks to childhood joys elevate a standard Burton exercise to a charming retro love letter.
Opens Opens Friday
Directed by: Tim Burton
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