Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: Frankenweenie
Review by Eric Lefenfeld
The last few years have not been kind to the ongoing legacy of Tim Burton. The reigning king of pop-goth cinema has continued to churn out films that are very clearly his own, but they’ve lacked that classic blend of whimsy and transgression that has embodied his best work. It’s a little painful to use a phrase like “wheel spinning” in conjunction with the man, but sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. Luckily, inspiration has only been laying dormant. With Frankenweenie, Burton has moved forward by going back to the well from which his whole career sprung, and the final result is the most “Burtony” Burton film in recent memory.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), like any red-blooded American boy, loves his dog, Sparky. Love, though, means very little in the face of an oncoming truck. Thanks to some well-timed advice from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor harnesses the power of lightning to give his dog a new lease on life. Sparky’s existence is briefly kept under wraps, but you know how these things go. A handful of Victor’s classmates are made aware of this resurrection technique, and decide to partake in some experiments of their own for the upcoming school science fair. Of course, as countless horror movies have taught us, things do not go according to plan.
Frankenweenie is an unabashed love letter to everything that shaped Burton. References are fast, loose, and far from subtle; everything – from the classic Universal monster stable, Gamera, even a quick nod to Bambi vs Godzilla — is blatant. Mr. Rzykruski is pretty much an animated version of Vincent Price, and it’s a nice nod to Burton’s own career that he once again turned to Martin Landau to bring life to one of his cinematic icons. Yes, the references could stand to be a little less pronounced, but there’s a certain giddiness there on Burton’s part, a wide open heart that wants to spread the love of these older films as far and wide as possible. It’s difficult to scoff at the “name the reference game” in the face of such unabashed glee.
There are occasional nods to modern technology, but the film is mostly set in that heightened 1950s milieu that made Edward Scissorhands such a treat. Voice acting is great across the board, and it never feels like stunt casting. In addition to Landau, Burton’s brought back some old favorites other than his usual Depp/Bonham-Carter two-punch. Winona Ryder comes full circle here as well, voicing Victor’s angsty next door neighbor. Her last name, of course, is Van Helsing. It’s not Lydia Deetz, but it was reminiscent enough to inspire a goofy grin when her voice first popped up.
It’s a children’s movie through and through, but Frankenweenie has no qualms about occasionally baring its teeth, which is always a refreshing and an all too rare change of pace. There’s some legitimately creepy imagery in play throughout the film, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some scenes find kids with their heads firmly embedded in their parent’s shoulder. Maybe it’s wrong to find enjoyment in seeing children get scared, but if that’s not the sign of a great Burton film, then what is? It’s not all about frightening the younglings, of course. There’s a nice, underlying message that being intelligent and curious is nothing to be ashamed of. The catharsis here is palpable; Burton seems to be addressing his somewhat famous history of growing up detached from his suburban landscape. Once again, the autobiographical nature of the film comes shining through, and this streak of personal investment is infectious.
This review is peppered with references to Burton’s past work, and that’s symptomatic of the (intended, one would hope) nature of the film. Frankenweenie feels like a culmination of his past work and, hopefully, a cleaning of the slate as well. For people of a certain age, a film like Beetlejuice was a rite of passage; an official ushering into horror fandom. If Frankenweenie can do the same thing for a new generation of children, then Burton has done his job. Frankenweenie doesn’t fully capture that long-lost magic, but in crafting this nostalgic pastiche, Burton seems more fully invested than he has in a long time. It’s too early to say if this is the beginning of a late-career renaissance, but at the very least, he’s off to a fine start.