Tim Burton's most enjoyable movie in a long time, "Frankenweenie" suggests this improbable blockbuster director is at his best when he's playing to an audience of one: himself.
It's never hard to spot Burton's signature: the baroque ghoulish visuals, macabre humor and topsy-turvy morality are always front and center. Johnny Depp is usually in there somewhere too. But lately Burton has seemed more like a stylist or a decorator than a director. Though his recent movies retain his signature style and visual panache, they seem to lack compelling characters and stories.
"Frankenweenie" is different. There's a direct emotional connection. This time it's personal. It's also perfectly scaled.
John August's witty screenplay is based on a short film Burton came up with nearly 30 years ago, the story of a boy who plays Frankenstein to try to revive his dead dog. The running time has stretched by more than 80 minutes, but that's still the essence of the new film, a lustrous black and white 3D stop-motion animation that doubles as a love letter to old horror movies and a classic boy-and-his-dog story.
Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is an introverted youngster, but also an ingenious kid who likes to make monster movies starring his best friend, Sparky. Encouraged by his dad to get out and play some ball with the other kids, Victor enjoys an unexpected moment of glory when he hits a home run. But triumph turns to tragedy when Sparky chases the ball into the street and is struck and killed by a car.
And that would be that, except that Victor's new teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) inspires him to think big for the science fair; and then there are the electrical storms that are a peculiarity to this otherwise normal small town.
Reveling in the expressionist, shadowy style of early sound films, Burton doesn't quite match James Whale's 1930 original "Frankenstein" in the resurrection scene, but he does have a lot of fun crafting a contemporary echo chamber in which Victor's classmates are shrunken clones of old Universal creature feature stalwarts. One kid is a gap-toothed, hunchbacked Ygor; another is a sinisterly cerebral Asian; then there's the weird girl who thinks her kitty's litter carries evil portent. Creepy as the kids are, the parents are worse, transforming into a lynch mob when their little darlings start taking too much interest in science. (They do have a point though: When several assignments get out of hand, the town's parade turns is crashed by a group of rampaging monsters.)
But Victor is a fine hero, immediately a more sympathetic figure than his famous namesake, and the patched-up Sparky has personality -- and limbs -- to spare. In fact, bits keeping dropping off, and when he takes a drink, he leaks a little, but it's nothing Victor can't fix.
After "Paranorman," "Hotel Transylvania" and "Frankenweenie" it appears Hollywood has pretty much got the family horror category covered.
More sensitive children may find the gothic pet cemetery upsetting and freak out at the violent climax. Burton's film should appeal most to mom and dad, anyone with a soft spot for Boris Karloff, and twisted teens looking for ideas to reanimate their own science projects. Just add relish.