Revisiting the 1984 short that got him fired from Disney, Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion feature is the movie he wanted to make back then before budget difficulties forced him to shoot it with live actors. Backed by Disney again and armed with an enthusiastic group of stars and promising newcomers, Frankenweenie showcases Burton’s unique vision at its most nostalgic. Set in a suburb seemingly identical to that of Edward Scissorhands (1990), Frankenweenie revisits and pays homage to the various expressionist and classic horror films that influenced Burton’s singular cinematic style. References abound, from the Bride of Frankenstein hair on a poodle to shadows climbing stairs, posed like Nosferatu. Though this pastiche will certainly fly high over the heads of the film’s target audience, the era to which Burton pays tribute lives on in his distinctive aesthetic. Burton’s stop-motion animation is nothing new (several puppets are even recycled from his older movies, such as a giant rat from Nightmare Before Christmas) but it lends a certain tangibility to the almost alien, stylized world of New Holland. The small town misunderstands young Victor Frankenstein’s “science project” that resurrects his dog, marking him as an outcast when all he wanted was his dog back. Victor’s alienation and the mob mentality of the townspeople, fueled by Danny Elfman’s (a frequent Burton collaborator) exaggerated score, lead to a Frankenstein-inspired climax. Another Burton favorite, Martin Landau, stands out as the Vincent Price-like science teacher Mr. Rzykruski who inspires Victor to experiment with the electricity that eventually brings his beloved dog back to life. His character gives the film its moral center in a brief line of dialogue, basically saying that small minds like the convenience afforded them by science, but fear its questions. Landau’s character then disappears from the film, but his words live on as a prediction of the mob scene at the film’s climax. Landau, coincidentally (not), won an Oscar for his portrayal of another horror icon, Bela Lugosi, in Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). The supporting cast of Victor’s schoolmates adds plenty of Burton’s trademark creepiness to an already eerie film. The fat kid, “E. Gore” the hunchback, the Japanese stereotype, crazy psychic cat girl, and the Eastern European could stand in for various aspects of horror history if we wanted to give the film the benefit of the doubt. The characters, however, generally cross the fine line between clever and annoying that Burton likes to flirt with. Like an unfortunately large amount of his work, they are simply creepy for creepy’s sake. In a Nutshell: It is what it is. Fans of Burton’s other work that will get the references will be satisfied. Everyone else will just be unimpressed.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Martin Short, Martin Landau, Catherine O’Hara