For the last decade or so, visionary filmmaker Tim Burton, once known for original concoctions like “Edward Scissorhands,” has gotten very good at taking studio assignments for pre-existing properties that seem to roughly fit within his wheelhouse (“Planet of the Apes,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Alice in Wonderland“) and applying just enough of his unique sensibilities, to make these properties seem fresh and easily marketable. It says something, then, that Burton’s best, most enjoyable, and most emotionally resonate film in years is actually an adaptation of one of his very first projects: “Frankenweenie,” originally a live action short he made while working as an animator for Disney, reanimated now as a brilliant black-and-white 3D stop-motion monster.
The story of “Frankenweenie” closely follows the original short film (which loosely follows Mary Shelley‘s classic novel “Frankenstein“), wherein a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), distraught over the death of his beloved dog Sparky, decides to bring him back to life. (Victor is both a monster movie nut and a science geek.) The idea for reanimation is planted in his head by his eccentric science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau and modeled after Vincent Price) and fed by his hometown of New Holland, a town that is overflowing with strange lightning strikes (the local kids attribute to a number of otherworldly explanations). After a nifty “It’s alive!”-worthy sequence, Sparky rejoins our hero. It’s just that once Sparky returns from the grave, Victor has to hide him from the prying eyes of his schoolmates (including Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) and parents (also O’Hara and Short). It’s a more macabre riff on the same friendship-with-an-uncanny-creature dynamic cultivated in movies like “E.T.,” “The Iron Giant” and “Lilo & Stitch.”
“Frankenweenie” is stylized to an almost impossible degree. It’s a black-and-white stop motion animated movie, converted from 2D to 3D (by Prime Focus World) and set in some bizarro version of fifties suburban California. It’s about as far removed from reality as you can imagine. But the sequences of Victor and Sparky—both when the dog is alive and when it comes back as a kind of patchwork version of himself, with bolts sticking out of his neck and snatches of fabric quilted into his skin—actually achieve an emotional realism that is strange for most Tim Burton movies, but that dangerously finds itself close to being lost in an endless abyss of references and quirky flourishes. It’s a testament to the talent of the animators that Sparky feels so much like a real dog, the way that he sniffs and walks and picks up one of his paws when he’s curious. Dogs are incredibly emotive animals, “Frankenweenie” proves that this is true even when they’re zombified.
If the movie has a downside, visually, it’s that many of the characters look too familiar. The same studio that worked on Tim Burton’s middling “Corpse Bride” also worked on “Frankenweenie,” and keen-eyed viewers will notice that at least two of the characters seem to be redressed versions of puppets that appeared in that movie (Victor’s dad and the unscrupulous mayor/next door neighbor Mr. Bergermeister, also voiced by Short). Also, the design of a handful of Victor’s classmates are uninspired and, quite frankly, sort of dull. They seem like the design work of a wannabe Tim Burton instead of the man himself, and it’s a bummer.
Since this is a Tim Burton movie, too, there are a few structural issues with the narrative, particularly in an overly long midsection, pockmarked with subplots clearly meant to be developed that are instead simply forgotten about. Particularly nagging is the sensation that these dangling threads (including an invisible, skeletal fish that disappears, and a moment when Sparky wrecks the neighbor’s yard, which you can feel was meant to arouse the suspicions of the neighbor) could have been resolved by including a simple scene or two. The movie is only 87 minutes long. Would it have been deathly if it was 95 minutes instead?
Thankfully, any problems that spring up during the first two acts are wiped from your memory by the time things kick into overdrive in the third act. Burton always has trouble concluding his movies, but the weird-ass free-for-all that ended this summer’s unfairly maligned “Dark Shadows” was a step in the right direction, and the entire end section of “Frankenweenie” might be the most purely satisfying, enjoyable and wonderfully over-the-top climax to any Tim Burton movie since “Beetlejuice.” What’s amazing, too, is that it incorporates elements of the climax of the short, but makes everything bigger and more complicated and, at the same time, more emotionally sound. In fact, these sequences single-handedly reinstate the fact that, when Burton isn’t appropriating some dusty bygone property, he is one of the most imaginative filmmakers working today.
We can see “Frankenweenie” becoming an evergreen title like Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (which, it should remembered, tanked in theaters), except more closely linked to Halloween (and from a studio perspective, hopefully more successful at the box office). Several of Burton’s confederates all put in outstanding work, here, too. Composer Danny Elfman unleashes a super-Elfman-y score, complete with choral arrangements and significant sections orchestrated by both church organ and theramin, while writer John August (who has been linked to Burton since “Big Fish” but took a backseat to Seth Grahame-Smith on two Burton projects this year) does an absolutely bang-up job appropriating the original short while adding scope, scale, and some much-needed emotional complexity. Production designer Rick Heindrichs, it goes without saying, has a field day, paying homage to a number of influential horror films while giving the film its own distinct look.
For a number of years, fans of Tim Burton have had to do so with caveats or footnotes, citing early works as the reason for their dedication. But with “Frankenweenie,” Burton has made a true return to form, a bold declaration that he’s still very much relevant and able to create something artistically sound that will stir the heartstrings as much as it will delight the eye. [A-]