The latest animated feature from director Tim Burton (A Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows) isn't another lazy Johnny Depp vehicle. It also isn't just another heavy-handed Gothic romance, or a silly re-imagining of a fairytale with zany characters and clownish makeup.
Instead, Frankenweenie is a remake of Burton's 1984 short film of the same name, now a bona fide animated feature that resembles and builds up the director’s easily recognizable earlier works.
In Burton’s retelling, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is not a creepy, adult scientist hiding away in his castle, puzzling over how to reanimate life. Frankenweenie instead brings us the young, curious, astute Victor who lives in a small town and shoots Super 8 movies with his spritely pooch, Sparky. Victor suffers through school, his dealings with his parents and the prickly kids his own age. All "normal" problems for an adolescent, but this is Burton's world — a black and white bazaar of oddballs and misfits — and he centers his narrative around a landscape of trimmed-hedges and white-picket-fence that he knows well and has explored numerous times in previous films.
The incident that tilts this seemingly perfect world toward the morbid (as Burton movies are so wont to do) is the death of Sparky, who is crushed by a sedan after he chases a baseball hit by Victor into the middle of the street. Victor is torn to pieces with grief — his only true friend in the world is gone! — but he is inspired by the hope of "bringing him back." And so the vivid legend of Shelley's Frankenstein plays itself out to a heartfelt degree, with Victor bringing his dog back to life. This being Burton’s vision, Sparky’s return leaves Victor sewing bits of the pooch back on when they fall off, keeping the miraculous reappearance of his dog a secret from his parents, and eluding scheming classmates who wish to steal Victor's resurrection equipment and make a run at winning the science fair.
Frankenweenie tenderly borrows from and parodies influences both obvious and obscure, at once eulogizing and chuckling at what makes horror films equal parts mesmerizing and schlocky. By making the film’s focal point a child, Burton pins the whole genre as something more than just a menagerie of thrills and terror, but a place to escape to when the world's bent on keeping you trapped in reality.
Burton's veritable return to form raised a lot of questions in this viewer: Should I be happy Burton is back on familiar ground, doing what he does best? Should I be angry it took the bastard this long to put his nose to the grindstone on a worthwhile flick again? Or should I feel bad for criticizing the director for having attempting (and often failed at) forays into new territory over the past decade?
Yes on all counts.