Based on a short film from the director’s early career, the stop-motion Frankenweenie has all the essential elements of the Burton formula: a sensitive, reclusive young hero; gallows humor; a giggly affection for old-fashioned horror. And don’t forget the yearning – if incongruous – desire for traditional Americana. Burton’s suburbia has never really been subversive, a la David Lynch, as much as it is inclusive. He loves back yards and picket fences and boys and their dogs. It’s just that he envisions the boy as young Victor Frankenstein, a withdrawn whiz kid who reanimates his dead pet, Sparky, after the dog has been hit by a car.
Yes, it’s a joke, and perhaps one not worthy of more than a short film. Yet when Burton is deeply attuned to the emotional undercurrent of his stories – as he is here – his movies become much more than ghoulish gags. Even as we laugh at the references in Frankenweenie (at one point a neighbor poodle gets a Bride of Frankenstein-style white streak in her fur), we’re also emotionally attached to these characters. Young Victor is a wonderful creation – soft-spoken, lost in his own attic inventions, a source of pride yet also worry for his parents, who would much rather he played baseball. When he loses his dog, Victor is cut off from all companionship. There is a terribly somber montage in which Victor’s devastated face remains at the center of the screen, without changing its deadened expression, while the background surroundings fade from one location (the breakfast table, the car, the classroom) to another. It’s an incredibly moving sequence, and the first time I fully felt the part that depression plays in almost all of Burton’s films.
I think the melancholy is easy to overlook in Burton’s work because he makes the macabre so fun. Victor’s classmates are a delightfully inventive collection of spooky faces, especially the morose little girl whose eyes resemble two giant white balloons. When she widens them, the circles become so big you’re afraid she’ll float off into the air. Then there is Victor’s science teacher, a dead ringer for Burton inspiration Vincent Price – that is, if Price’s chin had been stretched down to the middle of his chest and he had chicken bones for teeth.
This description may sound ghastly, but I’ve always found the creativity Burton fosters in his animators to be beautiful in its own odd way. Certainly the black-and-white imagery of Frankenweenie is nothing short of gorgeous; the deep blacks and rich grays not only add depth, but also a sense of texture. Like the best Burton pictures, Frankenweenie recognizes that beauty can be found beyond rainbows. It also lies in the dark shadow a rainbow casts.