Charming but slight, Tim Burton's Frankenweenie may not have much depth or ambition, but it has enough heart to win over most audiences. After all, how can you go wrong with a boy and his dead dog?
Burton returns to his roots with a full-length version of his ghoulishly funny 1984 short film. Riffing on Universal Studio's 1931 horror classic Frankenstein (and about half a dozen other monster movie classics, from Godzilla to Gremlins), he tells the tale of young Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan), whose beloved dog Sparky is hit by a car and killed. A budding filmmaker and science-whiz, Victor is inspired by a science lesson on electricity to harness the town's nightly electrical storms to bring his dog back to life. Success! He's alive! Unfortunately, Victor's creepy classmates learn of Sparky's resurrection, and, worried that they'll be overshadowed at the school science fair, decide to bring their own dead pets back to life. Monster mayhem ensues.
Though Frankenweenie is never less than amusing, John August's overly busy script is devoid of true wit or substance. Like the doctor in Mary Shelley's novel, he stitches together Burton's various fetishes but never establishes a sense of purpose. There are some clever nods to classic horror films and a few good sight gags, but for all the movie owes to Frankenstein, its references are narrative, not thematic. Inevitably the movie devolves into monster-movie commotion, racing from incident to incident rather than exploring the repercussions (emotional or dramatic) of Victor's actions.
Which is a shame, because Victor and Sparky are, at first, portrayed with warmth and empathy. But their bond never goes deeper. Once the dog is reanimated, Burton and August do nothing with the relationship, and Sparky pretty much remains the same pooch he always was — with various body parts falling off at inopportune times. There is a promising subplot involving Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor's Vincent Price-like science teacher who calls the townfolk out on their ignorance (it's a wonderful stab at the red-state rejection of science and learning), but nothing more is made of it. The idea disappears as soon as it's presented, and we're left with only a single killer line to recall. "They like what science gives them, but not the questions," as Mr. Rzykruski says sadly.
Still, Frankenweenie's creamy black-and-white stop-action animation is lovely to behold. The puppets have gorgeously exaggerated bodies and dark-ringed, soulful eyes that give life to Burton's macabre, humanist impulses. Once again, the director presents a triumph of style and design, finding laughs in unlikely places (as in repeated reaction shots of a white cat named Mr. Whiskers and his unblinking little girl owner) and composing gorgeous moments of cinematic wonder.
But Tim Burton used to have guts. From the surreal outsider weirdness of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to the romantic alienation of Edward Scissorhands, he was the broody but mischievous filmmaker who made Ed Wood empathetic while joyfully allowing Martians to incinerate Congress in an ambitious attempt to parody Kubrickian satire. Somewhere along the line (most think Planet of the Apes), he became Disney's company man, a director neutered of his darker impulses and empowered by his goth-cartoon sense of design. Frankenweenie, which is probably his best film in more than a decade, is more a reminder of what Burton has lost as a filmmaker than a return to what made him so exciting to begin with.