Since his early ill-fated animation efforts on The Black Cauldron, Tim Burton's career-long collaboration with the Walt Disney Corporation has been fraught, bordering on Faustian. Together with the Mouse, this modern master of marketable macabre created some of his best (Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood) and worst (Alice In Wonderland) work. So there was cause to be wary when Disney announced that Burton was returning to the Disney well, remaking his fledgling live-action short Frankenweenie as a stop-motion animated feature – in 3-D black- and-white, to boot. Thankfully, the resulting love-letter to mid-century monster movies turns out to be an entertaining and energetic summation of Burton's iconic aesthetic.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan, voicing a character that looks suspiciously like young Johnny Depp) is pale, alienated and more interested in science than sports, which actually makes him the most normal kid in his freak-filled school. When his beloved pup Sparky is struck by a speeding car, Victor reanimates the corpse with lighting, inspired by his electricity-obsessed teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau's voice with Vincent Price's visage). Edgar, the annoying neighborhood hunchback, blackmails Victor into letting him play Igor; pretty soon, humongous turtles and vicious Sea Monkeys are rampaging through their town, which conveniently has a requisite windmill for the inevitable torch-bearing mob to burn down.
More than anything Burton has directed in the past decade, Frankenweenie shows a kinship with the odd adolescent doodles displayed in Burton's recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit. The film feels channeled through his Famous Monsters of Filmland-loving teenage self, with nods to Jack Pierce, Conrad Hall and Toho Studios. Moreover, it's an homage to Burton himself, recombining thematic elements from his more personal works; even Danny Elfman's score reprises motifs from Batman and Edward Scissorhands. And the 3-D photography effectively emphasizes the rich detail of the handcrafted miniature sets.
John August's efficient screenplay shortchanges some secondary characters (particularly Catherine O'Hara's Mom Frankenstein and Winona Ryder's girl-next-door Elsie Van Helsing), but it impressively pulls off a tricky tonal triple play: gothic tragedy in the opening act, morbid satire in the middle and action horror at the end. There's a curious lack of a moral or consequences; Landau delivers the sharp line that "people like what science gives them, but not the questions [it] asks," but there is no follow-up. And the finale may be too genuinely frightening to be fully family friendly, but the tweens sitting in front of me handled it fine.
Frankenweenie won't challenge the preconceptions of Burton's long-time fans, but if he must reimagine someone's stories, better it's his own instead of Lewis Carroll's and Roald Dahl's.