Frankenweenie: Death and Other Absurdities
It doesn’t feel overly controversial to say that, despite some solidly good films, Tim Burton’s work of the last decade has lacked the spark, the je ne sais quoi, that made offerings like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands and even Batman Returns stand out. This is, in no small part, a lacking due to over-familiarity; the oxymoronically standardised-eccentricities of a Tim Burton film being repeated almost to the point of a self-parody of neo-gothic aesthetics and macabre black comedy… So, as Frankenweenie began to play out along broadly similar lines, the look of The Corpse Bride through a filter of Edward Scissorhands’ appropriation of Norman Rockwell, I felt an understandable resignation… And then I realised I had just laughed; and that I was laughing again.
Frankenweenie doesn’t shake off the stigma of its associations entirely; as the tensions ratchet up Danny Elfman’s score becomes distractingly evocative of his iconic Batman theme and there’s a sense that the film’s setting of New Holland could be a neighbour to Edward Scissorhands’ bleak visions of suburbia or a township of Gotham County. Nonetheless in Frankenweenie Tim Burton’s well-explored influences are brought together with the gleefully tongue-in-cheek B-movie Gothicism of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and its ilk. This latter element, juxtaposing a body-horror reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s work with the apparent-simplicity and directness of a more-typical children’s story, allows the sharply witty writing (including a teacher’s response to being run out of town by a suspicious anti-scientific mob) to barb and sting relentlessly.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the film is how unrestrained it is, even within the bounds of its PG certificate: In lifting elements from both classic gothic literature and the pulp monster movies of both Hollywood and Japan there’s a sanguine unpredictability and genuine sense of the horrific to some of the film’s inhuman antagonists and elaborate set-pieces. There is a moral to the story, but it’s fairly unimportant to the actual story and doesn’t intrude on the proceedings too much. It would be a welcome relief just to be able to point to a new Tim Burton film and hail it, unequivocally, as a return to form, but in the case of Frankenweenie we might even have something more; a film which builds on past glories to be Tim Burton’s best work.