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It’s surprising to realize how much of the iconic Tim Burton’s
career has been spent shepherding established properties to his own unique universe.
It’s especially curious, as his greats EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, BEETLEJUICE and ED
WOOD account for a filmmaker whose style we recognize but we haven’t truly seen
operate since those titles. How fortunate then, for kids today and audiences
alike, that a Burton with a personal, reignited passion has seemingly returned
to the tale of the young, ambitious and darkly tinged outsider, hitting many
notes we’ve so longed to hear in the process.
A hodgepodge of references and monster kid nostalgia stitch
together the story of FRANKENWEENIE, as a young Victor Frankenstein in the
suburban graveyard of New Holland takes to science to reanimate late pup,
filmmaking partner and best friend, Sparky. Victor navigates the ensemble of
oddities in his town (wide-eyed, strange classmates, grumbling neighbors and
even his own misunderstanding parents) with Sparky, making the dog’s accidental
demise a serious blow. Unfortunately, on Sparky’s return, prying eyes turn
Victor’s triumph into a monstrous bit of chaos.
Gorgeously animated , FRANKENWEENIE’s enthusiasm for the
layers it works on (both as an intimate story to Burton and a reverential, fun
one) feels handmade, making the choice of stop-motion wholly appropriate. It
lends a naturally macabre quality—although, how much of that is our own
expectance of the types of children’s films that are often
stop-motion—amplified by the black-and-white and fairly heavy themes Burton trusts
the younger viewers with. Midst the goofy, broad humor, there’s some dark,
loathing of the safe, sanitary and judgmental in FRANKENWEENIE.
Most emblematic of that sentiment is the film’s best scene,
a parent-wide school meeting that aims to berate Victor’s teacher Mr. Rzykruski
(a fantastic Martin Landau) for pushing the children to engage with science and
weird knowledge. Rzykruski makes his case in an electrifying speech condemning the
parents as thick-headed and afraid, complacent in a lazy society. It’s both
funny and poignant and naturally outrageous to the characters on the receiving
Sadly though, while FRANKENWEENIE is frequently fun, only
its monster climax manages to reach the heights of the aforementioned moment. Burton’s
reunions with Landau and Catherine O’Hara yield stellar stuff, but Winona Ryder
feels underused, save for a gloriously weird song celebrating the bizarre town
the film inhabits.
What does make FRANKENWEENIE undeniably something special is
its place as Burton’s most personal story yet. The film touches the audience on
a series of levels. Whether you or your child ever felt like the odd one out, it
certainly gets you. If you know the bond of a pet, FRANKENWEENIE is on the
level. And from Transylvanian voices, Hammer Horror clips and visual cues from
the likes of AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and GAMERA, Burton instinctively knows
what makes us as wide-eyed as New Holland’s young in the face of monsters. The
filmmaker is filtering his own, intimate story through his love of horror and
genre. It’s quite frankly, a beautiful, sweet notion.
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