Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) doesn’t have any friends but he loves his dog Sparky more than enough to make up for the fact. When a horrible accident leads to Sparky dying, Victor is despondent but inspired by the teaching of his science teacher (Martin Landau) he manages to bring Sparky back to life but when the local schoolkids find out about this, terrible danger threatens their newly revived connection.
Tim Burton has been a huge force in filmmaking for nearly 30 years now but lately, while he has achieved some of the best box office of his career, he’s also made some of what are generally regarded to be his poorer efforts with this year’s Dark Shadows alone pointing to the idea of a man who has for want of a better phrase, disappeared up his own arse. The bonza box office of Alice In Wonderland has allowed him to lay a demon to rest however, and here we have Frankenweenie, a full-length expansion of a short made during his early days at Disney, and the result is very heartening indeed.
Going back to basics appears to have worked for Burton with Frankenweenie. While shown in full 3D, which is a pretty pointless inclusion all told, the film is defiantly old-school in look and tone. As with the recent ParaNorman, Frankenweenie has been made using stop-motion techniques developed years ago and doesn’t feel like it’s had too much need for any CG input, something which almost indefinably adds a feel of personality which some of the rather more bland CG kids films of recent times have had but as well as all this, the film harkens back to not just the on-the-surface obvious Frankenstein references but has a layer of detail to them which gives it a more idiosyncratic feel with characters specifically modeled on Vincent Price and Peter Lorre among others. This is all before the film goes completely off the wall in a 3rd act which manages to reference films as wide ranging as The Wizard of Oz to Jurassic Park, a film fans dream which never pushes into smugness, instead hitting a tone of witty affection.
None of this would work all that effectively however if the film wasn’t as plain lovely as it is. This sounds odd coming from a work by Tim Burton but it’s a film where I defy you to not feel warm and fuzzy afterwards. While the idea of “a boy and his dog” is a fairly open goal in terms of illiciting sympathy, it’s the skill with which this bond is told which elevates proceedings with it made very clear that Sparky is Victor’s world and that he is an incomplete soul without him. In Sparky we have the dream ideal of a dog, affectionate, loyal, inquisitive and with a screw slightly loose, you fall in love with him before the fatal accident, but then even more so afterwards.
The most encouraging success though is undoubtedly the fact that Tim Burton, in shedding his stylistic excesses and concentrating on telling a story, has made his best film since Sleepy Hollow at the end of the 1990′s, emerging from a glut of overblown feature film remakes and instead focusing on something it feels like he loves deep down, not just wanting to take something and make it in his image. This is the work of a man re-connecting with what he seems to have missed, and is rather fitting given the plot of the film as a whole.