Frankenweenie is both a ghoulish pre-Halloween treat and something more notable yet: Tim Burton, at a moment when (James Cameron aside) he might be the world’s most bankable director, trying to get his head round why he got into this business. Burton began Frankenweenie as a stop-motion short in his early days as a Disney animator; in its completed state, it’s become a recapitulation of this director’s most enduring concerns – suburban strangeness, the hypocrisy of adults set against the curiosity of young minds – and of those films in his back catalogue that really matter: the Edward Scissorhands, the Batmans, the Ed Woods. You get some hint of what Burton is getting at from the fact the female lead is voiced by Winona Ryder.
In this quasi-autobiographical vein, it seems telling that its young hero Victor’s moment of greatest triumph – hitting a home run in a school baseball match, equating to all those $500m-plus hits Burton has knocked out of the park for the studios – should also spell disaster. While attempting to retrieve the ball, Victor’s faithful terrier Sparky is run over by a car. A creative mind, Victor soon brings what he loves back to life with a few nuts and bolts and the odd lightning bolt of inspiration – only to find that this small, personal, if you will pet project is considered altogether too strange by the squarish townsfolk, who’d rather their offspring stuck to reading Alice in Wonderland and watching harmless old TV shows.
Burton gets this on some level, which is possibly why Frankenweenie seeks to preserve its weirdness, rather than cartoon it up, as in his recent live-action work. Victor’s science mentor Mr. Rzykruski has the look of Vincent Price about him, and gets a bound-to-be-misunderstood speech at a PTA meeting, marvellously voiced in cracked English by Martin Landau (“I try to crack open children’s heads, and get at their BRAINS”). And our hero’s classmates are unapologetic freaks, from cackling sidekick Edgar to the skeletal blonde – DNA of a Corpse Bride – who reads signs into what she finds in her cat’s litter tray.
The level of craft and detail on show goes far beyond that of churned-out multiplex filler like Hotel Transylvania. It turns out that monochrome photography and state-of-the-art stereoscopy make excellent bedfellows: the film’s gorgeous approximation of the flat light of 1960s suburbia puts the energy-sapping murkiness of most contemporary 3D productions to shame. It also helps that everyone’s working from a taut, funny John August script, full of curlicued set-ups and pay-offs that keep us smiling on the way to the rousing, kill-the-monsters finale.
Frankenweenie may, ultimately, contain nothing so challenging as a Coraline; often it seems as though it should arrive prefaced by a deep voice (a Price, perhaps, or a Christopher Lee) intoning the words “Previously, on Tim Burton…” in the manner of our favourite serials. But if – as a wise soul once ventured – a director’s career is an ongoing conversation with the audience, this is the moment when an old friend who’s spent far too long quietly counting his money in the corner pipes up with the one thing that reminds you why you always loved or liked, felt worried about or protective towards them. It’s good to have Burton back in the land of the living dead.
Frankenweenie opens nationwide today.