After disappointing many of his fans (not me though, but I'm not really a fan) with Dark Shadows, Tim Burton is back with a vintage Burton project. Frankenweenie sees Burton return to the world of stop-motion animation and the result is more than spectacular. Frankenweenie is a delicately crafted film, made with absolute love and care and meant to charm the people who share Burton's particular interest in monster movies. It's Burton's baby and by far his best feature-length film so far.
Though I appreciate some of Burton's work (Alice In Wonderland), many of his films leave me with an uneasy emptiness as a direct result of unfulfilled potential. Even though he and I share the love for stop-motion animation (Panique Au Village, Fantastic Mr Fox, Mary And Max), I often felt that in the past Burton was trumped by partner in crime Henry Selick (Coraline). Frankenweenie is the first feature-length film where Burton truly convinced me of his stop-motion capabilities.
I say feature-length because I've been a long-time fan of Burton's early short film Vincent. Also shot in black and white, it held a wonderful charm that always made me wonder why he couldn't reproduce that in his feature-length work. I even think that Vincent is part of the reason why I could never get fully engaged in Burton's later work. Frankenweenie too is based on an old Burton short-film, though the original was shot in live action rather than stop-motion. The transition is definitely one for the better.
Frankenweenie is an ode to the monster films of yonder. Not really a surprise for people who've seen Burton's Ed Wood, but Frankenweenie takes a more intelligent approach. While Burton pays proper respect to his influences, he also creates a modern addition to the genre that stands well on its own. For someone who isn't completely versed in the subject there are plenty of easy to understand references, while some of the more obscure ones (props for picking Gamera over Gojira!) also managed to reach me.
The choice to shoot this film in black and white may not be the most commercial one, but it is a brilliant move nonetheless. Not only is it a direct reference to the old monster films, it also masks some of the limitations of stop-motion and it gives the film an overall darker tone. Burton's use of black and white is neigh perfect too, with several very moody and atmospheric set pieces stealing the show. The detail to the characters is astounding while some of the effects are truly impressive. Character design are fun and expressive, another big plus. It's clear that Burton had an above-average budget to play with (certainly for stop-motion norms) and he really made the most of it.
More surprisingly is the fact that for the first time I could actually appreciate the 3D effect used in a film. So far I'd considered 3D a farce, a gimmick that detracted from the experience and one that was only used to make us pay more for less (yes, even in Avatar). While the 3D here is still far from perfect (there is still too much blur when characters are moving fast), it really gives the characters an extra dimension. It's as if you're flying through the set with the models yourself. The effect may break the illusion of film a little, but it adds so much more to the charm of stop-motion that it's definitely worth the investment. Not that I've suddenly turned into an avid defender of 3D, but for black and white stop-motion projects it's a very nice addition.
For the soundtrack Burton relied on long-time collaborator Danny Elfman (no surprises there). Elfman's music is perfect, creating a score of fantasy-like music with a dramatic monster twist. It's a theme that fits Elfman's typical style and it's clear that he felt right at home with the project. The voice acting is surprisingly mature. No big stars paid just so their names can be featured on the poster, but a selection of strong voices that lend their characters some extra panache.
The premise of the film is simple and plot and story remain pretty bare-bones throughout. Judged by these factors Frankenweenie is a typical film aimed at kids. But the many references, the oddball characters and the very particular style will be harder to sell to a younger audience. Because of this Frankenweenie is a difficult film to market, which is clear when you look at the current theater programmings. The film didn't open that wide here in Belgium (and The Netherlands), some theaters only play it during the evening screenings. It's a challenge Disney clearly wasn't able to overcome, though I'm very glad they went ahead with the release because it's a film that deserves to be seen in cinemas.
Everything about Frankenweenie shows that this a film made with lots of passion and dedication. Its lush production values are betrayed by the enormous detail featured in the final product, but they never seemed to hinder Burton in producing the film he wanted to make. A pretty bold move, especially for Disney who are known to be quite conservative, but one I'm sure every Burton fan will appreciate. Frankenweenie is a pretty exceptional film and my favorite Burton so far, it's also the first film that made me less skeptical about the use of 3D in film, so make sure you catch this one in a theater near you.