The plastic grey skies of New Holland and the scratchy sketch marks around Sparky’s eyes are just two details which draw you into this tiny world and the unfolding affair of Frankenweenie. The small boy Victor’s love for his dog, detachment from his loving but helpless parents, remoteness from his gaggle of misfit classmates collide when a tragic accident throws Victor’s world into an untethered spin. When inspiration strikes from the Vincent Price-like science teacher an experiment takes place which throws the town into chaos.
The gallery of oddities which make up the cast of characters are perhaps the finest rendering of the classic Burtonian character and in reuniting with the likes of Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Martin Short there is a joyous suspension of disbelief which gives the story a glorious momentum. Martin Landau, Burton’s regal Lugosi, deserves a special mention here. As the darkly dour science teacher Mr. Rzykruski gives young Victor an important message and is the closest thing to a positive adult role model in the whole film and it is he who throws the real spark to the film, helped in no small part by John August’s terrifically engaging script.
The animation is near flawless with Burton’s gruesome creations (the human and the less-so) given real weight thanks to the work of the animation design team under Allison Abbate and the intricate details of the sets and characters are a joy. There are generous nods to the horror ancestry of the film, Danny Elfman’s score has echoes of Franz Waxman in its bones, and as the story unfolds Burton hits a stride we’ve not seen in a long time. Before the Chocolate factory and the trips down the rabbit hole, away from the Dark Shadows and the barber shop of Fleet Street there was a sense of boundless fun, and that sense is recaptured and redoubled here.
There are fantastic visual gags (a wonderfully stupid and inconvenient hat springs to mind), solid character arcs and a genuine sense of love all the way through. Frankenweenie is not Tim Burton’s masterpiece, though it feels like a circle has closed with many of the elements consistent to his work finding their perfect form here. In New Holland Burton once again resurrects his windmills, his awkward isolation, his outlandish imagination made terrifying and real.
In digging up the familiar bones and giving them an uncompromised shake the tenderness of the emotions key to Burton’s best work suffuses the air. It is Burton’s best work in years, it is also his most familiar.