“How does the film provoke emotional, psychological, or physical reactions in the audience?” That was the first and most frequent question I’ve been assigned as a film student, and since then it has become a guiding star in how I approach cinema. I prefer the idea of the film experience operating as a form of osmosis; not merely the creation and mass consumption of a product, but a profound transfer of thoughts or emotions to a receiver. Much as some films make us want to talk with the director about it, the act of watching the film essentially is talking to the director. It’s not simply storytelling, but conversation that we have potential to take part in.
Much to my surprise, I found myself having an emotion and physical reaction to a director who I had previously been single-minded enough to disregard altogether. You would/perhaps do have reason to worry about Tim Burton too, given repugnant recent entries such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows. Big budget efforts have tended to squander Burton’s visual creativity on obnoxious glitz and imbecilic camp, and they’ve carried Tim straight to the bank. So I was somewhat shocked that my immediate reaction to Frankenweenie was not of vomit, but of tears. The first minutes of the film had me weeping sincerely by the strength of its craft.
I must also note a certain proclivity to stop-motion as a significant factor in the film’s overpowering first moments, given the immense time and effort that goes into a single second of footage. But the credit for the emotional heft of the opening is owed not to forced tragedy, but an extraordinary amount of love. That is love not just between protagonist Victor Frankenstein and his dog Sparky, but Burton’s undying (not undead) love for cinema. It’s no passing gesture for him to shoot this film entirely in black and white, a passionate ode to the films that clearly inspired him as a young boy. Though Frankenweenie pushes stop-motion technology to where it’s never been before, he does it in service of long-honored monster movie tradition.
The relationship between Victor and Sparky is no uber-fantastic representation, but merely how loving a young boy is of the one friend who won’t burden him. What makes the death and absence of Sparky so devastating is how it affects Victor, sullen and more alone than ever. However, through the innovation of science he is able to revive Sparky through the strange power of lightning. All seems well, but lightning never strikes twice in the same place, and as Victor’s selfish classmates converge around him and Sparky, things go unexpectedly, quite gleefully, awry.
You’ll find no lack Tim Burton’s nutty characters, but their dialed in a more intentional manner than usual. Such comes from a story so personally crafted from the director’s mind, as well as from horror cinema lore. Nassor, one of Victor’s more oppressive nemeses, is rather clearly and peculiarly crafted after Frankenstein’s monster. While that reads significantly as a quirky aside, the arc of his dead pet does rather ironically feed into a character who is also isolated, but in a more dominating manner than Victor. Tokiashi’s design isn’t as creatively amusing as that of the creature he brings to life, which amounted to quite a satisfied giggle from my end.
Igor-channeling Edgar is an outcast in the same vein as Victor, but Frankenweenie isn’t so strict to material as to mimic plot and character beats of Frankenstein at every turn. Edgar is a childishly malicious foil to Victor’s personally compelled goals. One of the fondest characters Burton conjures is Mr. Ryzkruski, the well-meaning, if superciliously undoing, science teacher who most recalls past Burton collaborator Vincent Price. Though most will agree the most colourful of these colourless characters is the unnervingly nameless “weird girl”, scarcely detached from her psychic cat Mr. Whiskers.
The surprise of Frankenweenie is how uniquely heartfelt the aspects that have proved recently offputting in his other efforts comes across. Burton’s manically macabre finale finally reads as spontaneously deranged rather than oppressively inundating. The aesthetic of the film dials down his most overt visual stylings for one of the few times in the recorded history of the director. Perhaps the move that chides best is the refusal to shove romantic manipulations in the story, inferring companionship without expressing it in an obvious manner.
The emotional beats here are refined and far from obnoxious, nearly every moment informing either character or theme in a compelling manner. All the more satisfying is that Burton achieved his greatest technical accomplishment on a budget less than half that of his massive studio productions. The stop-motion employed is not merely the most visually and structurally ambitious ever attempted, but also the cleanest. Never do the characters read as inanimate objects given animation through cinematic trickery. The warm embrace you get from the film’s chilly atmosphere is no cheap trick. Tim Burton is telling us something that means a great deal to him. It would rude to simply not listen.
Bottom Line: Frankenweenie is the extraordinary Halloween family flick of the season, offering gleeful horror thrills a beating, overpowering heart.