One imagines Frankenweenie is the movie director Tim Burton has been waiting to make his entire life.
A film of stop-motion animation, it is a feature-length version of a charming but unremarkable live-action short he made for Disney in 1984, about a kid who revives his beloved dead dog via lightning bolts. The House of Mouse found the end result so odd and macabre that it shelved plans to send it to theaters and fired the then-novice director.Burton landed on his feet, of course, and three decades later, the world is used to his idiosyncratic style — one indelibly stamped on his filmography, which includes Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands.
Ironically, now that Burton is a household name, the new Frankenweenie comes to us from Disney. Yet if there’s a Hollywood studio moviegoers will associate with it, it’s Universal. While on its surface a story of the bond between a boy and his dog, the film is not-so-secretly a tribute to Universal’s classic monsters of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Its debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is right there in the title — and in an absence of color — but Frankenweenie’s back half also cleverly pays homage to Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon. By doing so all at once, Burton also winks at the studio’s monster-mash efforts like House of Frankenstein, which crammed in as many monsters as would fit in one film. These overstuffed spin-offs were like The Avengers of their day, endlessly replayed on local television stations’ weekend schedules to children all too happy to soak them up.
Burton’s just one of the few who has been able to take all that absorbed junk culture and wring it into a career — witness Mars Attacks!, his Planet of the Apes remake and this summer’s Dark Shadows. Not that the bar was set all that high by those projects, but Frankenweenie is his finest stab yet at marrying nostalgia to his own skewed sensibilities.
In fact, it’s one of his best, period, and part of that could be because working with stop-motion animation allows him complete visual control. His works often put looks above logic, but the script by frequent collaborator John August (Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) allows his boss’ imagination to run wild while also retaining heart. Without quite hitting tearjerk mode, it has much. And much more artistry.