Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ is the director’s first animated film – and his first without Johnny Depp – since 2005’s ‘Corpse Bride’. It’s the story of Victor, an awkward schoolboy and a vague alter ego of the filmmaker’s younger self, who brings his dead dog Sparky back to life with the help of lightning. It’s ‘Frankenstein’, softened and reimagined in the postwar American suburbs, and it has the gentle stamp all over it of the mid-century American horror movies that Burton grew up on.
It’s a kids’ film, but one that possesses a delicious sense of the macabre, and plays with welcome messages about creativity, reason and the search for knowledge rubbing up against conservatism and dogma. Victor has to fight to realise his science project in the face of philistinism and a gym teacher who declares: ‘Sometimes knowing too much is the problem.’
For Burton, the project is a fleshing out of a short film he made back in 1984, although this time he tells the story as a black-and-white, stop-motion cartoon in 3D, a form that brings with it a simplicity and restraint lacking in his mega-budget live-action affairs. The craft is seductive: characters are realised with compelling detail, from Victor’s oddball friend Edgar, with his oversized teeth and spindly legs, to his terrifying eastern European science teacher, Mr Rzykruski.
The big tease is that, by promoting the supremacy of science, ‘Frankenweenie’ takes a sideswipe at creationists – but it does so by reshaping the story of the ultimate freaky creator. Burton might not like square teachers messing with our minds, but young inventors rewriting the rules of nature with a little imagination will do just fine.
It’s Burton’s most pleasurable film in a long while and surely his most personal. It descends into a final section of anarchic buffoonery, but this is a Tim Burton film with something to say. And that’s a rare and precious thing.