After weathering the hits and misses of Tim Burton's more recent work, fans saw a promising break in the clouds when the full-length adaptation of "Frankenweenie" was announced.
The black-and-white short that originally got him fired from Disney has, ironically, come full circle – not only does this spooky stop-motion tale reunite Burton with the kid-friendly studio, it has zapped new life into a career that was gasping for air.
The story from his 1984 short remains intact in this fleshed-out feature version. It's about Victor Frankenstein, a young boy with no real friends other than his loyal dog, Sparky. After Sparky gets hit by a car, Victor employs the new electrical knowledge he learned in science class to reanimate his beloved best friend. The experiment succeeds in bringing Sparky back from the dead, but also invites a fair amount of unwanted attention from his competitive classmates.
Much of "Frankenweenie"'s updated plot revolves around the antics of the creepy cast of characters at Victor's elementary school. Once word gets out that Victor's electrified Sparky back into existence, they all want to have a go at it. They, however, want to do it to get an edge in the upcoming science fair and will stop at nothing to learn Victor's secret.
This conniving cast of oddballs is alternately creepy and hilarious and very quintessentially Burton-esque. They're dark, twisted and just teetering on the edge of too bizarre for their own good, but the uncharacteristically grown-up humor they provide is worth a little risk. The aptly named "Weird Girl," for example, delivers her morbidly deadpan observations to near perfection (the perfection is saved for her creep-tastic furball cat, Mr. Whiskers), and Edgar Gore (get it? "E"-gore?) takes being the outcast to a quirky and unnerving new level.
Where "Frankenweenie" really shines, though, is in the details. Burton channels work from his past and touches of classic horror – plus his own off-kilter sense of humor – to turn his latest feature into a legitimate labor of love. The seemingly idyllic, cookie-cutter town of New Holland, its conspicuous windmill, the neighbor girl's hairstyle and demeanor and other add-ins give cute nods to Burton's most iconic films. Things like the poodle next door's romance with Sparky, Victor's telltale method of resurrection and even the name of a pet turtle help tie it back to the original "Frankenstein." And still there's room for Burton's trademark style to peek through and tie it all together.
Lest people think this is just Burton capitalizing on his past successes with sly (and not-so-sly) allusions to his best work, I should point out that there is still plenty of originality to be had in viewing "Frankenweenie." The clever inclusions are practically all visual, meaning that the extra 58 minutes the feature has on the short are made up of brand-new content. Although its a bit of a Frankenmovie thanks to the various sources it cobbles together, the stitching is still one-of-a-kind.
More important than the content, however, Burton has recaptured the whimsical, innocent tone that permeated so much of his earlier material. Caught up in more commercial projects like "Dark Shadows," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," much of his unique ability to balance darkness and light was sidelined. With "Frankenweenie," Burton returns to form with an ease that suggests there is still much more promise left in his distinctive career.
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