Strangeness comes full circle for Tim Burton with Frankenweenie, expanding a short film he made 28 years ago that got him fired from Disney for being too weird. Now Disney is proud to both present and profit from this gently macabre tale of a boy and his undead dog, and I imagine Burton in a man-crypt somewhere gloating.
With its new, monochrome stop-action animation and mostly needless 3-D, Frankenweenie is stitched together with love and a bit raggedy, like Sparky the dog in question. It's essentially a collection of spare parts from Burton's filmography, which makes sense since the original Frankenweenie established his darkly comical vision. Half the fun is recognizing the callbacks.
Sparky's owner and re-animator is Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan), whose saucer eyes and tousled hair recall Burton's muse Johnny Depp. There are nods to Edward Scissorhands by casting Winona Ryder as the voice of Victor's ally Elsa, the gardening skills of her uncle and a science teacher resembling Vincent Price (with Martin Landau's voice for an Ed Wood angle).
Mostly there is Burton's affection for creature features that shaped his life and career, from arcing sparks in mad scientists' labs to Gamera and Gremlins. He's still a horror film fanboy at heart, and padding a short to feature length is a chance to celebrate them. Frankenweenie runs just 82 minutes counting end credits, so little time is devoted to plot or characterization that would curb his enthusiasm.
Burton borrows the lovely, silvery palette of James Whale's 1930s Frankenstein flicks to depict Charlie and Sparky's life (and then some) in New Holland, a town conveniently equipped with a windmill suitable for torching. Charlie spends his time indoors, making monster movies in which Sparky comes to the rescue. Dad (Martin Short) shoves Charlie outside into baseball, leading to a Bambi moment for dog lovers everywhere. (In a wicked touch, Bambi is playing at New Holland's movie theater.)
Inspired by his teacher's lesson in lightning, Charlie begins experimenting with bringing Sparky back to life. Just like every time anyone messes with the forces of nature something is bound to go wrong. Whatever happens is only a bridge to Burton's monster mash finale created for the long version. It is fun, frantic and a chore at times to reach.
Yet there are Burton's signature touches throughout Frankenweenie, moments both sweet and sick at the same time, making this arguably his most personal movie. It is his nostalgia trip to days before above-title billing and beyond, back to a creature feature youth that likely seemed misspent at the time. The circle of strange life.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.