There’s been a lot of chatter over the last decade or so (at least since his Planet of the Apes remake) claiming that Tim Burton is washed up, out of the game, finito. For a long time it was easy to dismiss these naysayers as nostalgia worshipers, people who hold their childhood experiences so close to their own hearts that nothing can compare to the movies they loved at age thirteen. On the one hand, this chorus of doubters conveniently ignores the fact that during Burton’s supposed period of decline he somehow managed to direct Big Fish and Sweeny Todd, two of his absolute best films that pull Burton’s bag of tricks into new territories. But after the dual duds of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows it has become increasingly difficult to ignore these doubters. Where Dark Shadows was inoffensively mediocre, Alice in Wonderland stands as perhaps Burton’s worse film and yet simultaneously his most successful at the box office (AdamSmith you have failed us).
Frankenweenie, which is based on a live action short film Burton directed while working for Disney, could have gone one of two ways: it could have drawn an unflattering comparison between the Burton of old and the Burton of the new millennium, or it could have showcased a talented director going back to the well and delivering up some of his old magic. I’m happy to say that Frankenweenie is much more the latter than the former. Unlike Planet of the Apes or Alice in Wonderland, which felt like a Burtonesque paint job was hastily plastered onto someone else’s movie, Frankenweenie is a wonderful encapsulation of Tim Burton’s obsessions with surprisingly little regard to audience reception. Like the best family films, Frankenweenie brazenly straddles the line between heartwarming and offensive.
At its core Frankenweenie is a basic retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic monster tale with the mad scientist of Switzerland switched out for a bunch of suburban kids. The main character is even named Victor Frankenstein in one of several subtle and not so subtle allusions to classic monster movies. But Burton is far less interested in gothic literature of the 19th century than he is in b-movies of the mid-20th century. In typical Burton fashion, Victor is an awkward outcast who has a love of science but no real friends except for his dog, Sparky. When Sparky one day gets loose from his leash and gets hit by a car, Victor is naturally despondent. But after a lesson by his equally strange science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, on the affects of electricity on dead animals, Victor decides to resurrect his beloved dog.
Much of Frankenweenie plays out like Tim Burton’s love letter to Tim Burton. It feels almost as if he too is performing a type of conjuring act, resurrecting his old self for one more film. The movie is a loving assemblage of b-movie tropes and allusions, from analog mad scientists to Japanese kaiju. A good number of the references will likely go over the heads of the younger set. And the dark humor Burton and his team find in the concept of a walking, rotting corpse often comes across as a lighter version of Cronenberg’s body horror. But these choices are refreshing because they show us that Burton is making this film largely for an audience of one: himself. Perhaps the most audacious creative choice was the fact that the movie is filmed in black and white. It’s difficult enough to release a film for adults in black and white anymore, much less one that’s ostensibly a family film.
But of all the movie’s characters, the one that interested me the most was Mr. Rzykruski, voiced by Martin Landau who previously turned in one of the best performances of his career in another Tim Burton joint, Ed Wood. I often have a problem with Hollywood’s depiction of teachers in films. Too often they come across as self-help gurus (see Dead Poets Society) or they are tasked with saving inner city youth (see Dangerous Minds). Rarely are films interested in teachers who, you know, actually teach their subject. We only see Mr. Rzykruski a few times, but judging by his classroom demeanor, he is interested in little more than showing his class how the world works. There are no gimmicks. For him, science should be interesting enough. Later in the film, the parents come together in a meeting to denounce what he is teaching in their school and demand that he resign. Rzykruski takes this opportunity not to defend himself, but to in insult the parents and condemn them for being so ignorant.
This scene is in-keeping with Burton’s distrust of the public. Think of the moment in Edward Scissorhands when the community starts turning on Edward or how easily the Penguin manipulates the people of Gotham in Batman Returns. In Burton’s world, the public is always one little push away from becoming an ignorant mob. This depiction of a teacher who stands up to the parents of his pupils is also refreshing in a culture that has decided to lay all of society’s problems at the feet of public school teachers (see Won’t Back Down). If only teachers would listen to politicians and meet the demands of largely arbitrary testing criteria, then all of our economic and social ills would be solved. But here Frankenweenie clearly tells the parents to get out of the way of teachers and let them actually teach.
For anyone who has pined for the Tim Burton of old, then Frankenweenie should be refreshing. Most children’s movies provide rather routine pabulum as life lessons. Similar to The Nightmare before Christmas, a film that was about failing at your life goals, Frankenweenie doesn’t trade in easy lessons. Perhaps the movie’s message could be best summed up by Victor’s father who tells his son, “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.” I think we can all agree that this is both an unconventional message in a children’s movie and that as a statement it is largely true.