Review: “Frankenweenie”

Tim Burton plays to his strengths in a full-length animated revival of his classic 1984 short.

Martina Marosi

“Frankenweenie”

Where: Selected Theaters

Rated: PG

Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Charlie Tahan, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short

Opens: Friday
 

As if from the grave, director Tim Burton has risen to the occasion in delivering his latest feature that is neither gaudy (“Alice in Wonderland”) nor starring Johnny Depp (everything else).

The madcap auteur’s newest full-length feature, “Frankenweenie,” is a stop-motion revival of his original 1984 live-action short about a young boy and the reanimation of his dearly departed dog a la electrical current in an attic laboratory.

If Burton has anything to say about it, however, the allusive mode of this ruff-‘n’-tumbler’s resurrection is just one feature of an extensively referential movie that reads like a quirky love letter to filmmaking.

Like its namesake, the animated film is black and white. It also sets its action against what is essentially a replica of the original set — makeshift laboratory, winding cemetery, insular town and all — down to the smallest detail.

The boy, Victor Frankenstein, gets along famously with his partner-in-crime and stout spud “Sparky,” whose portly panache carries with it much of the emotional weight of film.

When dear old Sparky runs into a street to retrieve a ball — as playful pooches are wont to do — he is confronted by a wayward automobile and meets his untimely demise. After his goosebump-inducing breakdown at the scene, Victor’s unbridled love curdles to despair.
Introduced from the outset as a young filmmaker himself, Victor resolves to use his technical know-how in reanimating his favorite collaborator — who springs back to life, albeit with rudimentary patchwork and a defective tail.

But, as Victor’s science teacher — the eccentric, brooding and thickly accented Mr. Rzykruski — says, such things must be done “with love” lest they meet their uncertain ends. Outside of its titular protagonist, the emotionally intense Rzykruski is the strongest character in “Frankenweenie.” He is Burton’s didactic mouthpiece with the facade of a grotesque caricature of Vincent Price. What is filmmaking, Burton prods, but mad science?

The director uses “Frankenweenie” to play on familiar themes with new twists. Loyal but lonesome Victor follows the legacy of Burton’s infatuation with misunderstood outsiders. The director’s longtime-collaborator Danny Elfman evokes touches of “Edward Scissorhands” in his choral score alongside wandering shots of an all-too-innocuous suburbia. The gothic neighbor girl Elsa — with the charming last name of Van Helsing — brings Lydia Deetz of “Beetlejuice” to mind; certainly not coincidentally voiced by Winona Ryder.

Burton also draws his winking allusions from cinema classics befitting a self-aware camp-revamp appropriate for family-viewing. Victor sneaks past his parents as they watch a live-action “Dracula” on their old television; sinister classmate Edward ‘E’ Gore stalks the lean loner Victor in all of his hunch-backed, picket-fence teeth and Peter Lorre-esque glory. A Godzilla-like monster stomps about town after a classmate jolts his own deceased turtle with a shock of electricity and a penultimate climax sees Victor follow his creation into a burning windmill.

Such sentimentality befits “Frankenweenie,” which balances its own nostalgia with sharp comedic beats and absurd character designs that seem like rough drafts that didn’t make it into “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

This isn’t to say an old dog has gone and learned new tricks. Burton’s victory with “Frankenweenie” might rest on the safety of returning to a past project that was successful the first time around. However, he fleshed it out without the overindulgence that has come to characterize his more recent works.

With “Frankenweenie,” we learn that sometimes bringing something back to life ain’t such a bad idea after all. It just has to be done with love.

 

3 1/2 stars