The London Film Festival opens tonight in Leicester Square with the premiere of Tim Burton’s long-gestating creature feature Frankenweenie. It’s another mesmerising masterclass of puppetry by the man who brought you Corpse Bride and A Nightmare Before Christmas, crafted at Three Mills Studios in East London.
Like those films, Frankenweenie ponders the vagaries of death, this time following schoolboy Victor Frankenstein who resurrects his pet pooch after a nasty road accident. It’s not your average Disney toon, but it is classic Burton. With its countless references to old b-movies and a sumptuous monochrome aesthetic, the critics are in rapture. But a question remains: will the kids love it?
Speaking ahead of the gala, Burton made no bones about the fact that he liked to wallow in nostalgia. “It’s such a memory piece,” he said. “Thinking about the kids you remember from school, the weird teachers… and the period, the stop-motion and the black-and-white, and working with people that I’d worked with in the past just made it more special.”
Old cohorts Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara are among the voice cast who – along with stunning character design – lend colour to a typically gloomy Burtonesque suburb. Of course shooting the film in black-and-white is an even riskier move for a commercial powerhouse like Disney, but Burton is adamant that this was “a crucial element”.
“It’s something that’s hard to put into words,” he said, “but for me it made it more emotional and the idea of seeing it in black-and-white and, also the 3D element, just for me helps support what the people who worked on the film did – the work that they did. When you look at these puppets you see the reality of them, the tactile nature of it, that everything’s handmade and all.”
Assuming the lack of Technicolor doesn’t put off the kiddiewinks, the suits at Disney may also wonder if so many nods to old Hollywood movies (including The Bride of Frankenstein, Godzilla and even Gremlins) may exclude filmgoers who were born post-Scream. The director isn’t worried.
“Obviously there are a lot of references and it’s all based on those old movies, but we thought very hard throughout the film – we didn’t want to make it reference dependent, you know? We just wanted to shoot it to make it feel like one of those movies, even if you don’t know the references. We felt that you should be able to enjoy the movie without knowing every reference. It was always in the back of our mind.”
On the flipside, a lack of film buffery may even enhance the viewing experience. The little monsters who populate Victor’s classroom – like the hunchbacked Edward E. Gore (that’s a postmodern take on Igor, wink-wink) and the poodle next door with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo – might have increased shock value for unsuspecting youngsters.
Surely, Burton knows too that children these days – just as they’ve always been – are fascinated with whatever lurks in the dark. He’s just a little coy about saying so, that’s all. “I don’t find my films dark, you know? It’s so funny because from the very beginning all of my films have been described as dark but I never ever felt that way, not at all.”