Tim Burton Returns to Animated Comedy Horror
By his own account, Tim Burton spent many hours
as a kid in the graveyard down the street from his tidy subdivision. An
introverted child, Burton grew up to become the champion of weird outsiders as
writer-director of Edward Scissorshands
and Ed Wood. With his latest, the
animated feature Frankenweenie,
Burton remakes one of his early projects, a short cartoon he did for Disney in
1984, and revisits some of his earliest fascinations. Frankenweenie is a comically macabre, tip-of-the-hat to the old
black-and-white horror movies regularly aired on broadcast television when
Burton was growing up.
Pointedly, the protagonist is named Victor, as in Frankenstein. However, he’s not a tormented scientist but a boy, probably Burton’s age when he whiled away time in the cemetery, who lost his beloved dog Sparky to a car accident. Victor (voiced by child actor Charlie Tahan) is inconsolable until an experiment in science class lights his imagination. Drawing down the elemental energy of lightning, he reanimates Sparky, whose injuries left him stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, and whose existence triggers unintended consequences that could destroy the well-kempt town of New Holland, dominated by a windmill where the climactic scene will occur, much as in the 1931 film Frankenstein.
Burton’s delightful old school aesthetic is given full expression in Frankenweenie. Shot in brilliant black and white, the film’s animation is achieved by stop-motion photography and finished in eye-popping 3D, a contemporary trend whose old roots are emphasized in the opening scene. Victor is a budding Super8 filmmaker in this retro, circa 1965 setting. His monster movie involves the stop motion of plastic figures against cardboard backdrops and is viewed through cardboard 3D glasses. It’s a nice effort for a kid, but father worries. “All that time he spends up there,” he complains, motioning toward his son’s attic hideaway-studio. He’d like to see Victor play baseball like the other boys.
Frankenweenie is probably the closest Burton has come to writing an emotional autobiography of his adolescence. His real life father was once a professional baseball player who, like Victor’s dad, was forced into another field. New Holland stands for the faceless Southern California suburb of Burbank where he grew up. Victor’s classmates are all ghoulish and creepy, just as they might appear to a lonely, friendless boy. And there are several graveyard scenes, albeit it’s a pet cemetery on a bleak windswept hill whose Gothic monuments suggest the restless boneyards of old Hollywood horror pictures. Of course, Burton loads the setting with sly humor. The gravestone of a departed tortoise is marked Shelley, a nod toward the 19th century author of the original Frankenstein story, Mary Shelley.
The references to classic or at least vintage horror movies are almost too numerous to list, with allusions to everything from The Birds to The Beast from 20,000 Thousand Fathoms. But the focus is on James Whale’s campy 1935 production, The Bride of Frankenstein, especially but not only in the scene where Victor’s attic-turned-laboratory is the setting for jerry-rigged electrodes and generators and the lightning storm that restores life to the corpse of Sparky. Victor’s science teacher is like the mad Dr. Pretorius as he might have been played by Boris Karloff, speaking of the power of electricity in sepulchral Transylvanian tones with soft rolling “Rs.” And the obese and ugly-tempered Mr. Burgermeister, New Holland’s mayor, will rouse a torch-wielding mob of threatened conformists when the hour arrives.
The all-star cast of voices includes Winona Ryder as Elsa van Helsing, the sullen girl next door and potential love interest for Victor, and Martin Landau as the mad but not entirely unwise teacher who warns Victor that science is neither good nor bad but can be used to either end. Even the outcome of an experiment, he implies, can be changed by the desires and attitudes of the experimenter. Little wonder that Victor’s electrical extravaganza results in a loving dog while the other kids who replicate his process produce only monsters.