“Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton’s stop-motion remake of his own 1984 live-action short, retains the macabre charm of the original while delivering the distinctive animated visuals that audiences have come to expect of the director. The film also, unfortunately, reflects Burton’s usual difficulties with pacing, but let’s save the bad news for later. “Frankenweenie” may be imperfect, but it’s a fun celebration of Horror that arrives at a prime moment of the year, with just enough time separating its release from that of the superior “ParaNorman” to avoid unfavorable comparisons.
Burton’s oeuvre has long reflected his considerable affection for the horror genre. “Sleepy Hollow” was an atmospheric retelling of Washington Irving’s classic ghost story, for instance, and even “Batman Returns” was influenced by German expressionist cornerstones like 1920’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and 1922’s “Nosferatu.” As the title indicates, “Frankenweenie” is an off-kilter spin on another genre staple: “Frankenstein.” Ten-year-old Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) resurrects his beloved dog, Sparky, after being inspired by his science teacher’s (Martin Landau) lecture on electricity. When Victor’s conniving classmates conspire to imitate his experiment, the disastrous consequences cause the townsfolk and mayor (Martin Short) to lay the blame on Victor’s reanimated pup.
Part of the fun of watching “Frankenweenie” is identifying the various mainstays of Horror to which Burton alludes. The film shows a particular reverence for monster movies, especially those produced by Universal in the 1930s and ‘40s. There are visual references to “The Wolf Man,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “Giant Monster Gamera,” among others. Story-wise, the third act of “Frankenweenie” borrows heavily from “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” and delivers similarly humorous results. Burton also makes a significant shout-out to his well-known idol, Vincent Price, by modeling Victor’s science teacher after the actor. All this said, the numerous references won’t get in the way of younger viewers’ surface enjoyment of the material; the images alone aren plenty captivating for kids.
Speaking of the images: Burton renders “Frankenweenie” in the same gorgeous stop-motion that he employed in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (with director Henry Selick) and “Corpse Bride” — only this time in black-and-white, giving the production a stark look similar to those of the films it homages. Burton’s trademark character design, full of disproportionate limbs and bubble-heads with plate-sized eyes, is a scrappy joy to behold. In this respect, the film’s aesthetic is also vaguely reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass holiday specials from the ‘60s and ‘70s (probably not unintentionally, given that Burton directly references “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”). But “Frankenweenie” definitely has enough unique visual elements to distinguish itself from Burton’s other animated works; in addition to the B&W, the set decoration is intriguingly subdued for the director, more reminiscent of the aggressively vanilla suburban backdrops of his 1990 live-action feature “Edward Scissorhands” than anything he has made since.
The main flaw of “Frankenweenie” is its glacial second act, which had this critic daydreaming about Burton’s references rather than paying attention to what was happening onscreen. Burton uses this stretch of the film to add more story-points than existed in the original short, and these come across more as padding than anything of value. Victor has four classmates–modeled after Igor, the Blob, Frankenstein’s monster, and… a Japanese stereotype?–and each of their respective plans to copy his experiment are played out in detail. A brief montage would have sufficed for these subplots, but instead, they consume nearly 30 minutes of the film’s runtime, robbing the storytelling of momentum.
In spite of its listless middle, “Frankenweenie” is an appreciable return-to-form for Burton after his dreadful adaptations of “Dark Shadows” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The lowered expectations engendered by the filmmaker’s shoddy recent history will leave most viewers pleasantly surprised by this enjoyable romp, which is visually engaging for kids and inventively nostalgic for their parents.