Ever since Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton has mostly been in the adaptation business, rendering dark and becurlicued Sleepy Hollows, Alice in Wonderlands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factorys. With Frankenweenie, he adapts his own work—the first animated short he ever produced for a major film studio, and the one which semi-famously got him fired from Disney back in ’84. Given the crappiness of the studio’s Reagan-era output, that has to be seen as a giant badge of honor or something. Working for “the man” generally entails a minimum of boat rocking and originality, and for all of his faults, Burton’s vision is still unlike any other filmmaker’s.
In Burton’s films, introverts have access to hidden worlds: bat caves, the afterlife, wonderlands, and the surprisingly comfortable interiors of giant peaches, all of which become the inner worlds of lonely people. It’s kind of remarkable that this entire sensibility sprang so fully formed in that original short.
It’s in the new full-length as well. You pretty much know the life trajectory of any kid named Victor Frankenstein—sooner or later, he’s going to tamper with the fundamental forces of nature, there’s going to be some low-pressure cells moving across the tristate, and suddenly he has conquered death via the medium of lightning. Names are destiny, y’all, that’s why Adolf and Humbert Humbert are historically unpopular handles for newborns.
So, yes, when his weenie dog Sparky is struck by a car and killed, Victor is inspired by his new science teacher to generate some impressive innovations in the untapped field of reanimation. Victor, voiced by Charlie Tahan, intends to submit his reassembled and electrically resurrected dog at his school’s science fair, but he’s actually motivated by a broken heart.
Naturally, any Tim Burton joint is going to include references to vintage films, and most of the classic Universal monsters get little tributes in the form of character designs, comic bits, and minor plot points. There’s a hunchbacked Igor-looking kid in Victor’s science class, a bully who looks like Lon Chaney, and one pretty great Bride of Frankenstein–hairstyle gag.
The film’s heavy, Mr. Burgemeister, is a happy reference to the villainous Burgermeister Meisterburger from the terrifying stop-motion childhood classic Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Voiced by Martin Short, who also plays Victor’s father, Burgemeister is a fussy, bitchy next-door neighbor who hates the Frankensteins and their mutt. The character pays tribute to the old Saul Bass Burgermeister puppet design: His mouth is a creepily undulant slit, and he has some kind of weird, supernumerary homodontia thing going on—something like four times the usual number of teeth, all of which appear to be incisors. In fact, there’s a whole orthodontic visual approach to all of the puppet designs, particularly with Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, (voiced by the scene-stealing Martin Landau), whose mouth kind of resembles that of the Mouth of Sauron character from the four-hour nerd version of The Return of the King.
The dog is great. Sparky isn’t a cartoon character as much as a behaviorally accurate little canine, which is 10 times cuter than if the script had gone in a Dreamworks Animation direction, with, like, Ben Stiller voicing the dog, and then a song by Smash Mouth or some damn thing. Sparky—both the live and reanimated iterations—circles the ground before curling up in a little ball, intently studies the backyard’s fence line, and wags his whole butt whenever he sees Burgemeister’s poodle.
Although Burton likes to create imaginative, storybook worlds (which sometimes overwhelm his characters), this evocation of 1950’s suburbia is rendered and lit with realism and understatement, all the better to contrast with the very Tim Burton–y character designs. Victor’s classmate Elsa Van Helsing, voiced by Winona Ryder, has long, spindly stick legs; many of Victor’s acquaintances are ball-shaped; pretty much everyone has dark circles around his or her eyes.
The imaginative world of New Holland is lively enough that a lot of critics are probably going to say stupid things like, “You don’t even notice that it’s shot in black-and-white!” Not to be all contrary, but yes, you do notice that it’s shot in black-and-white. You’ll also be aware that you’re watching it through the polarized lenses of 3-D glasses, because you’re observant. Critics, man.
Burton has always been an uneven storyteller, and a dissident critic might even suggest that Batman was a low point in the director’s casual relationship with narrative. That seems to be a controversial position, even despite Robert Wuhl’s dialogue, the whole Vicki Vale character, the worst songs Prince ever wrote, a rewrite by the horrible Warren Skaaren during the 1988 guild strike, and the inexplicable killing of the Joker. Frankenweenie, scripted by John August, and based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps from Burton’s original story, is tight and brief, hitting all the marks you’d expect from an animated kid’s film, and enlivened by Burton’s visual style. The man should make more small movies like this one.