For too long, Tim Burton has been caught up in retreads and remakes, and his stop-motion horror parody “Frankenweenie” is not an exception.
Yet this time Burton is remaking one of his own works, and so he remains true to his own vision for one of the few times in the last decade.
“Frankenweenie” is an expanded version of a 30-minute, live-action short Burton made for Disney in 1984. Disney honchos at the time said Burton had “wasted company resources” on a film too dark and scary for kids and fired him.
Burton also made the new version for Disney, and the ironies continue to mount, because the film is darker and scarier than the original. This reflects not only Burton’s increased clout, but also the reality that Hollywood is now less squeamish about throwing children into peril.
The basic story is the same. A young boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is traumatized when his beloved dog, Sparky, is hit by a car and killed. Because Victor’s last name is Frankenstein (a joke that’s a bit too on the nose), he transforms his attic into a laboratory and uses the next lightning storm to zap Sparky back to life.
The 1984 short was a straightforward homage/parody of James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein” with Boris Karloff. While that masterpiece remains the new version’s primary influence, this “Frankenweenie” goes on to lampoon monster movies in general. John August’s script does bear the strains of stretching a simple plot by an hour, but it remains good fun.
As is true of most of Burton’s films, the look is a key selling point. Bravely, Burton insisted on photographing “Frankenweenie” in black and white (an artistic choice I am certain he could not have made if not for the colossal success of the soulless “Alice in Wonderland” he directed for Disney).
The monochrome photography is essential for recreating “Frankenstein” iconography, from the creepy cemetery to the zizzing lights in the laboratory. As Mel Brooks would attest, you can’t spoof “Frankenstein” in color.
In black and white, the characters look like pencil sketches moving about in three dimensions. Many of the figurines have pencil-like scribbles or hash marks highlighting their eyes or accentuating their joints. The characters, particularly Victor, have the long, skinny legs familiar from Burton’s earlier stop-motion productions, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”
For no apparent reason, several of Victor’s classmates resemble classic movie monsters. One kid looks like Igor and is named Edward “E” Gore. Another unfortunate lad looks like Frankenstein’s monster with a flat head, oversized shoulders and hulking physique. They form two-thirds of a scheming trio completed by a Japanese boy named Toshiaki, whom I guess is supposed to represent evil scientists from Toho’s giant monster movies. Toshiaki speaks with an exaggerated Asian accent that makes him sound like a “Jonny Quest” villain and is hardly politically correct for a 2012 family film.
The one relatively normal schoolmate is the sympathetic girl next door named Elsa Van Helsing (many character names are in-jokes) and voiced by Winona Ryder, working with Burton for the first time since “Edward Scissorhands.” Her pet poodle has an enormous bouffant, so we see the “Bride of Frankenstein” joke coming long before it happens.
Victor and his friends live in the town of New Holland, which Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs have conceived to look like 1950s suburbia – a 1950s suburbia filtered through the era’s sitcoms and educational shorts.
“Frankenweenie” doesn’t have the deeper themes of this summer’s superior horror-themed stop-motion feature, “ParaNorman.” Yet “Frankenweenie” does have an agenda to promote science education at a time when, in certain parts of this country, science is treated like witchcraft. “They like what science gives them, but not the questions science asks,” says Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykyruski (pronounced “Rice Krispie”).
The teacher is played by Martin Landau, who was Bela Lugosi in Burton’s “Ed Wood” and uses that voice again here. “SCTV” veterans Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short play Victor’s parents and several other characters.
Victor’s classmates eventually figure out he brought his dog back to life, and they all raid the cemetery for their own dead pets. The resulting monster mash-up at the ending is predictable, but still enjoyable. A good Godzilla/Gamera joke is always welcome.
In the early days of his career, Burton emerged as a brilliant and playful filmmaker. He lost his sense of joy during the years he churned out the reconstituted “Planet of the Apes,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Dark Shadows.”
With “Frankenweenie,” Burton is playing again – playing with animation techniques, playing with our shared knowledge of film history, playing with the idea that “Lassie” and “Frankenstein” can be stitched together. “Frankenweenie” is far from his best, but it is a timely reassurance that the old Tim Burton still exists and may be able to work his black magic again.