Tim Burton is not a man afraid to look to the past. A quick glance at the director's filmography reveals a fistful of adaptations, remakes, and reboots -- for a guy with a strong, distinctive narrative and visual style, he seems remarkably eager to put his own stamp on other people's stories. But with his latest project, he is for the first time rethinking one of his own concepts. In 1984, when Burton was an animator for Disney, he directed a short film that put an idiosyncratic twist on the story of a boy and his dog. Spending too much of Disney's money on the 30-minute Frankenweenie got him booted from his job in the animation department, only to launch his successful directorial career a year later with Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Now he has remade that live-action short into a full-length animated feature, and the new Frankenweenie is an alternately sweet and dark-humored comedy that's fun, visually striking, and reveals how little Burton's inspirations and obsessions have changed over the past 28 years.
Frankenweenie concerns Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan), a boy who is good-natured but shy, and prefers to make homemade monster movies with his Super-8 camera than play outside with other kids. But Victor has one true and loyal friend -- his dog Sparky. His parents (Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short) fret a bit about their son, and dad persuades him to join a Little League baseball team despite his disinterest in sports. Trying to impress a cute girl next door named Elsa (Winona Ryder), he manages to hit a home run, but it has unexpected consequences -- Sparky chases after the ball, runs into the street, and is hit by a car. He is emotionally devastated by Sparky's death, but the next day at school, eccentric but enthusiastic science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) shows how electricity can make a dead frog jump and Victor gets a big idea. Using household gadgets to create a lab in the attic worthy of the family's last name of Frankenstein, he is able to reanimate Sparky, who seems like his old self beyond a few errant stitches that cause him to leak water and occasionally lose his tail. All is well until his creepy neighbor Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) gets wind of Sparky's new life and tries to persuade Victor to help him with a science-fair project. Edgar and several of his friends discover his notes and bring back some of their own deceased pets, but while Victor acted out of love, the other kids are driven by ambition, and as a result their experiments are a great deal more problematic.
Frankenweenie was created using stop-motion animation (with an occasional digital assist), giving the picture a look that will be familiar to fans of Burton's Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas. The film's design motifs walk a tightrope between the expressively spooky (Edgar looks like he could have been drawn by artist Big Daddy Roth, while the other characters are charmingly grotesque in Burton's trademark style) and the skewed suburban tableaux of the 1984 original (as well as Burton's later works Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood). The film also tosses in visual references to dozens of vintage horror and sci-fi pictures, from the Universal Studios classics of the 1930s to monster flicks of the '50s and '60s (and at one point, Victor's mom and dad cuddle on the couch as they watch Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula). It's not hard to see a bit of Burton in the horror-loving Victor (though Burton's drive to bring things to life is thankfully different), and if anything, the director's affection for this story and his empathy for Victor's love of Sparky shines brighter in this animated interpretation than it did in the original short (itself one of Burton's most underrated works); he certainly has greater control over the look and feel of New Holland than he did in 1984. Burton, cinematographer Peter Sorg, production designer Rick Heinrichs, and their team of animators have made Frankenweenie a quirky but engaging visual feast, while the movie has a core of warmth and bittersweet sentimentality despite its cloudy tone. The filmmakers are aided immeasurably by the excellent voice cast (most of whom take on several characters), particularly a con brio Martin Landau as Mr. Rzykruski and Winona Ryder as Elsa, who seems to be channeling her lovably off-kilter Lydia from Beetlejuice (especially when she sings of New Holland's "modest homes at modest prices"). At its best, Frankenweenie feels like an expansion of Burton's original short rather than an effort to rethink it, and if it adds a certain amount of visual trickery and thrills to the tale, its heart is still the relationship between a boy and his dog, and it still pulls at the heartstrings no matter how strongly you resist.