While nearly 30 years have passed since the original “Frankenweenie” short that presaged Tim Burton’s commercial success, the director’s faithful feature-length adaptation retains so much of the original’s old-school appeal that it could have been made in the same nascent period. A distinctly Burtonesque gothic comedy, the black-and-white “Frankenweenie” lovingly acknowledges a wide range of classic monster movies while showcasing the filmmaker’s trademark blend of creepy imagery and compassion for juvenilia. While not Burton’s greatest accomplishment, it’s his most definitive work in years.
Like the half-hour short, “Frankenweenie” upgrades Mary Shelley’s famous tale to the setting of countless Burton films. Among bland California suburbs not unlike those found in “Edward Scissorhands,” Burton finds middle schooler and only child Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) leading a solitary existence making 8mm monster movies with his best pal Sparky, a peppy canine whose companionship shields Victor from the demands of the outside world.
Even before we arrive at Sparky’s untimely demise and Victor’s now-familiar application of lightening to rejuvenate his dead pet, “Frankenweenie” constructs a stylishly gloomy atmosphere that hints at the creepiness hovering just above Victor’s bland surroundings. The Stepford-like community is populated by grinning blue-collar archetypes further exaggerated by Burton’s angular character designs and stark, colorless imagery, which mirrors Victor’s warped perspective of a limited environment. More than simply inhabiting Victor’s perspective, however, “Frankenweenie” offers an entire universe of spooky reference points to eke out the tension between the town’s conservative values and the prospects of more daring possibilities lurking in the shadows.
Of course, the voice of reason comes from an unusual place: Victor receives sage advice exclusively from his Russian science teacher (Martin Landau), an energetically loony, mustache-twirling mad scientist ironically positioned as the movie’s voice of reason. (Although he hasn’t done much lately, Landau’s charmingly goofy accent helps to distinguish his most enjoyable role in years.) While Victor epitomizes Burton’s longstanding sympathies for alienated dark souls, it’s the teacher who provides an exit strategy from the ordinary life challenges Victor faces by encouraging him to think outside the box.
Victor’s true foe is not mortality but the comparatively insipid expectations imposed on him. As Victor’s parents fret over his social development, he attempts to avoid participation in the local softball team, but those problems dwindle in value when Sparky is hit by a car. The dog’s sudden death and the solemn, teary aftermath introduce an abrupt poetic sadness to the proceedings that instantly deepen the movie’s thematic reach.
Then comes the abnormal twist. Facing a difficult rite of passage, Victor chooses to ignore its presumed boundaries. After witnessing his science teacher reanimate a dead frog with electricity, the boy decides to exhume Sparky’s corpse and expose it to a storm above his attic; naturally, the experiment brings the decayed animal back to life, a mixed blessing for everyone involved.
As Victor gets the chance to upend the typical hardships of facing death for the first time, Burton wryly updates the conventional coming-of-age mold. In this version of childhood nostalgia, life’s harsher mysteries can be unwritten. From the first act onward, Burton explores the emotional arc of a death drama in reverse.
When another neighborhood kid, Edgar — a leering hunchback and dead ringer for the Igor role — happens upon Victor’s achievement, the scheming classmate aims to capitalize on the young scientist’s discovery for the upcoming science fair. Blackmailed into sharing his technology, Victor winds up contributing to a rash of lightening-based experiments as more classmates capitalize on his discovery, leading to the chaotic outbreak of a supernatural menagerie that wreaks havoc on the town during the delightfully wacky final act.
Even during these moments, “Frankenweenie” retains a modest, handcrafted feel due in large part to its retrograde use of stop-motion animation that never falls back on advanced computer trickery. Less ostentatious in terms of spectacle and script than Burton’s “Corpse Bride,” the new movie is nevertheless more narratively refined as it teases out the restrictions of all-ages entertainment. Earlier this year, “ParaNorman” featured the similar plight of a young loner saving a town from undead forces, but it saved the prevailing message about coming to terms with the past for a climactic tell-all speech. “Frankenweenie” smartly channels its insight into the modest storyline.
John August’s screenplay is littered with life lessons that deconstruct the myths enshrouding a sheltered youth. “It’s easy to promise the impossible,” Victor learns from his higher ups when their predictions that he’ll get over his grief fail to come true. He’s not the only one in defense mode. His candid science teacher faces oppression from the community for preaching unvarnished truths. “You don’t understand science because you are afraid of it,” he tells the school board, and while the struggle mirrors contemporary debate about the role of evolution in public school curriculum, in a larger sense it reflects the risks associated with a rich imagination. Burton counteracts the pressure to play it safe with possibly the most subversive denouement found in an animated Disney movie: “Sometimes, adults don’t know what they’re talking about.” Only Burton could make this the final takeaway of a movie ostensibly marketed toward children.
Elaborating on that idea, the silly mayhem in the closing sequence is a gleeful defiance of the rationality to which the grownups in “Frankenweenie” adhere. Burton’s id explodes onto the screen with a plethora of demonic mutated critters ranging from naughty giant sea monkeys straight out of “Gremlins” to a towering reptile that pays blatant homage to “Godzilla.” Each contributes to the impression of a magical playtime stemming from Burton’s uniquely grim toy chest.
Despite its spectacular combination of artistry and insight, however, “Frankenweenie” doesn’t have the storyline to match. Hardly more than twice the length of the original short, the movie barely delivers on its potential before halting the promising trajectory with a tidy resolution. But it’s never less than a satisfactory showcasing of the precise ingredients that established Burton in the first place. In the wake of the director’s ill-received “Dark Shadows” update and the critically maligned “Alice in Wonderland,” the reminder couldn’t arrive at a more prescient moment. In that regard, “Frankenweenie” is a tale of resurrection in more ways than one.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Disney releases Frankenweenie October 5. The dare elements may scare off some families, but Burton’s established brand and the dearth of quality animation this year may help the movie gain considerable commercial appeal during its first few weeks of release. Whether it can gain any traction during awards season remains an open-ended question, but it will garner plenty of attention as the opening night film at Fantastic Fest and other media events.