Good Dog, by David Bax
Whenever there’s a new Tim Burton film on the horizon, one starts to hear the term “return to form” murmured in dark corners of movie fandom. It’s not that these films are being proclaimed such, it’s that there’s an anticipation; a hope that the next one will be the one we’ve been waiting for and we can all finally exhale. Burton is not the first or the only director to have lost his grip on his own magic (you saw Prometheus, right?). Yet, for some, it is all but impossible to let go of the attachment and the longing for Burton’s best work. Most likely, that’s true of people who grew up like Victor – the lead of Burton’s newest film, Frankenweenie – who is an odd loner, misunderstood and perhaps even feared by adults and classmates alike. For these people, Burton’s greatest films are more than just that. They’re old friends who understand and relate better than most people can. Will such fans consider Frankenweenie the long-awaited return? That’s tough to say but it’s a pretty darn good movie nonetheless.
Based on a live-action short of the same name made by a young Burton in 1984, Frankenweenie tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein, a grade-schooler in the small town of New Holland whose beloved pet and only real friend, Sparky, gets hit by a car and dies. Inspired by a science class lesson from new teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced wonderfully by Martin Landau), Victor decides to harness the power of electricity in order to bring his dog back to life. It works but it leads to a whole raft of other problems. He must keep people from discovering what he’s done. When they inevitably do, he must take measures to protect himself, Sparky and the entire town from the fallout.
Setting it apart from Burton’s recent work, Frankenweenie contains a lot of actual fun, as opposed to the forced, studio-approved and very expensive-looking “fun” of movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps because he’s adapting his own work, the film remains almost completely in harmony with itself, a notable departure from the sloppy and schizophrenic Dark Shadows from earlier this year. It’s filled to the brim with references to other monster/horror movies (probably far more than I caught given that I possess little expertise on the subject) but these are not cynical stabs at the laughter of recognition. They’re cleverly and thoughtfully woven into the material in a way that betrays the director’s love for his influences. Burton’s creative tiredness in recent years has been indicated by the tendency of his films to crank dutifully from one set-piece to the next. In contrast, Frankenweenie swims smoothly ever forward, gaining velocity as it goes until it essentially becomes a classic adventure picture.
While all this is going on, Burton also remembers to keep the proceedings truly funny, in that slightly askew way that makes things like Beetlejuice such a joy to watch. The presence of Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara as the voices of multiple characters is invaluable but, as he did in 1994’s Ed Wood, Landau becomes the comedic champion, here playing a teacher who cares deeply about children and their education but can’t help coming off as sinister and threatening. Meanwhile, the silent, physical comedy of Sparky and the other pets we see throughout are not only humorous but imbue each animal with an identifiable and distinguishable personality.
Problems do remain, however. Despite all the old school Tim Burton danger we feel, there is an element or two of the worst kind of Disneyism, the kind that is more interested in keeping its young audience stimulated than in allowing their developing brains an emotional or intellectual catharsis. Compared to Edward Scissorhands, a film that manages to be fairytale-sunny and fairytale-morbid at the same time, the light and dark elements of Frankenweenie occasionally feel at odds with one another.
So, the question persists. Is Frankenweenie Burton’s return to form? It would be disingenuous to pretend that it compares favorably to Wood, Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, the Batman movies or the truly great Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Still, it doesn’t belong with the dregs, either. Put it instead in the same mid-range category as the fascinating but uneven Mars Attacks! or the schmaltzy but underappreciated Big Fish. By any count, it’s the best film he’s made in a long while.