Before he became an enormously successful filmmaker, Tim Burton was once a struggling artist. In the 1980s, he was employed by the Disney animation department, where he worked on films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. He also made his first masterpiece, a 30-minute black and white homage to horror films called Frankenweenie, about a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (played by Barret Oliver of The Never Ending Story) whose dog Sparky is hit by a car then brought back to life through electricity. The boy’s parents were played by Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern and the film, made in 1984, demonstrated Burton’s love for monster movies, ghoulish humor and stories of outsiders seeking love in a world that doesn’t understand them.
The Disney company decided that the film’s macabre sense of humor, which merited a PG rating, was out of sync with their family-friendly output and shelved the film indefinitely. Burton famously left the studio and went on to make Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman. The studio eventually gave his short film a belated release.
The greatest irony is that now the Mouse House is distributing Burton’s feature-length, stop-motion animation remake of Frankenweenie. After years of ambitious but disappointing films, like this summer’s disastrous Dark Shadows, Burton’s new film is a heartfelt, beautiful and hilarious return to form.
The story mostly remains the same, as Frankenstein brings Sparky back to life and tries to keep it a secret from his family and classmates. Whereas the original film kept things tight and focused, the remake adds a cluster of new characters; some of them get intriguing introductions but have little follow through, but one of them is an absolute riot.
“Weird Girl,” as she’s identified in the credits, has amusingly huge and creepy eyes, with a cat that matches her strangeness and she gets huge laughs every time she’s the center of the film. The big climax is more chaotic than necessary, since this is really about a boy and his dog, but the mix of demented imagination and dark laughs are in flush supply.
The voice cast does fine work, as Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara take on multiple roles and the animation is crisp, playful (sometimes portraying puppets manipulating puppets) and vivid. The black and white filming is a daring and perfect touch which evokes the feel of old monster movies. Even those put off by black and white won’t find it distracting and the same goes for the well-utilized 3D.
Best of all, Burton is having fun utilizing imagery and themes from past works but he’s got a story that is deeply touching and consistently funny. A running gag involving a neighbor’s dog in love with Sparky provides some wonderful moments and longtime fans of Burton will recognize nods to his Family Dog, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands and even Batman. His previous films have been either underwhelming remakes or too in love with Gothic imagery in favor of a worthy story. Here, Burton is in his element, marrying a unique twist on Mary Shelly’s timeless horror tale with dazzling animation and a heartfelt reflection on the pains of childhood.
Some have said his films are “style over substance” but here, as in his best films, the style is the substance. Burton’s past films seem too in love with themselves but this one is in love with the movies and will remind his detractors why he’s one of our most exciting and creative film artists.
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated PG / 87 Min.