The visionary behind “Beetlejuice” and “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” comes out to play in this ghoulishly entertaining horror-comedy
In the same way that some Woody Allen fans prefer the style of the auteur's "early, funny movies,” there are admirers of Tim Burton’s first films who face crushing disappointment after they’ve eagerly lined up for the likes of “Dark Shadows” or “Alice in Wonderland,” hoping for the thrills they got from “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
Fans of Tim Burton 1.0, rejoice: “Frankenweenie” hearkens back to the director’s salad days and, in turn, to the old-school horror classics that inspired him in the first place. If you’ve been jonesing for suburban outsiders, monster-movie shout-outs and Winona Ryder, this is the movie for you.
In this remake of Burton’s live-action 1984 short, young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) loves science and scary movies but has no real friends besides his devoted dog Sparky. When the lovable hound gets hit by a car (take heed, parents — it’s no coincidence that the local cinema is showing “Bambi”), Victor is inconsolable, until he sees his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) make a dead frog’s limbs twitch by connecting them to electricity.
Before long, Victor is digging up Sparky’s grave, elevating him to the sky during an electrical storm (lucky for him, his town of New Holland has them every night), and before long, Sparky’s alive. Alive! Even if his stitched-on tail has a tendency to fly off during enthusiastic wagging.
Victor tries to keep his reanimated pet a secret, but soon his creepy classmates figure out what’s going on and, in an attempt to keep Victor from besting them at the upcoming science fair, they all electrify dead animals and accidentally create horrible beasts that threaten to destroy the whole town.
This autumn has seen something of a bumper crop of cool horror-comedies aimed at kids, and while this film isn’t as tightly plotted as “ParaNorman” (John August’s script starts to run out of steam before the big finale peps things back up) or as gag-a-minute as “Hotel Transylvania,” the black-and-white, stop-motion-animated “Frankenweenie” provides the same jolts of pleasure and originality that Burton delivered with his debut feature, the wonderfully eccentric “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
Here, Burton reunites with several members of his repertory — besides Ryder (who plays the niece of Mayor Burgemeister, a nifty reference to the Rankin-Bass animated classic “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”) and Landau, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short voice most of the movie’s adults — and revisits favorite themes, but “Frankenweenie” doesn’t feel like just a greatest-hits retread.
The film has a timeless feel (the cars and appliances are from the ’50s, although the plastic water bottles aren’t) but offers messages that couldn’t be more contemporary, particularly the idea of science itself as something that people fear and distrust. “They like the things science gives them,” Mr. Rzykruski says of the local mob, “but not the questions science asks.”
Perhaps boldest of all is Mr. Frankenstein’s admission that “sometimes, adults don’t know what they’re talking about.” It’s this embrace of kids and their creativity — not just tolerating a dark and twisted look at the world but actually championing it — that put Burton on the map in the first place, and with “Frankenweenie,” we discover that the director can still summon that sense of wonder after all these years.