His new movie is quintessential Burton — manna for purists and an unexpected joy for the uninitiated.
As a young animator, Burton caught a wave when he made the original movie back in his early days at the studio. Fresh out of CalArts, he was just another finger-stained grad working on the lot at a time when cable TV was a new frontier.
How did a young Burton end up at Disney, and what did he originally have in mind for ‘Frankenweenie?’
The Disney Channel had airtime to fill and commissioned short movies and other non-feature fare to fill it.
Burton came up with a story about an ordinary boy named Victor Frankenstein who is forced by circumstances to live up to his namesake when his best and only friend in the world, a bull terrier named Sparky, is hit by a car.
In the attic of his suburban home, Victor creates his own laboratory for the specific purpose of reviving his beloved pet. On a dark and stormy night, he hoists the carcass to the sky where a lightning strike will jump start the animal’s heart.
Burton’s original short is indelible to anyone who has seen it, a quirky nostalgic little gem starring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern.
While it works fine on its own terms, the material seems to crave a stylistic sensibility better suited to animation.
Burton claims his original concept was for a stop-motion feature-length film and the new Frankenweenie, with its charming artifice and nostalgic aesthetic, is a perfect marriage of material and tone.
The director delights in toying with his favorite tropes of classic horror — moody black-and-white photography, shadows on the walls, and the pure artifice of studio filmmaking.
Victor is an outsider in the classic Burton sense, obsessed with tinkering alone, much as Burton himself spent hours alone as a child, drawing pictures and watching movies in an unremarkable house on a side street in 1960s Burbank.
Victor designs a lab like the one used in the original Frankenstein, substituting bicycle wheels for voltrons, an ironing board for a gurney and a swing set slung over an open skylight for a pulley.
When the young hero successfully brings his dog back to life, his methods are copied by his classmates, a hunchback kid named Edgar Gore (get it? E. Gore?) and Nassor, a Boris Karloff knock-off, who aim to win the school science fair at any cost.
In fact, the classic Universal Studios monsters run amok this movie, including a vampire cat, a were-rat and a mummy-hamster — re-animated pets who wreak havoc at the town fair.
If there are issues with Frankenweenie they are minor ones — for instance, what was once a tight little film now feels padded out.
Writer John August’s script seems to spin its wheels in the second half on a plot point involving an invisible fish, and the climactic mayhem at the town fair is fun but pulls the story away from Victor and Sparky.
Some characters are lovingly endowed, such as Victor and his maligned science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), while others are treated as an after thought, like Elsa Van Hesling (Winona Ryder) as the put upon daughter of the town’s Mayor Burgemeister.
Following on the heels of ParaNorman, Frankenweenie may seem like the second in a trend of ghoulish family films. But Burton’s new movie is a stand alone, redemption for the fatally flawed Dark Shadows earlier this year, and a pleasurable closing of the circle.
Filmmakers don’t usually get to revisit their work. And when they do, the result can be horrifying. But Frankenweenie is a case of a distinguished artist returning to material that is dear to him, bringing with him a career’s worth of experience, and dusting off a diamond.