By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s animation about reanimation: a boy harnesses the power of lightning and gives his dead dog a new leash on life in the macabre and madcap Frankenweenie.
Many moons and movies ago, eventual auteur Tim Burton made a live-action short with this basic premise. He returns to it now to remake it in a different form, perhaps inviting accusations of a self-indulgent desperation for material. But minutes into the fascinating finished product, it’s obvious that that’s not at all the case.
It’s a stop-motion cartoon, in black-and-white and 3-D, a reimagined feature-length version of the 1984 miniature that marked the end of Burton’s tenure as a junior animator and launched his directorial career.
Like the original, this gothic comedy is a gleefully gloomy celebration and takeoff of the 1931 classic, Frankenstein, based on the Mary Shelley book.
In the California suburb of New Holland in the 1950s, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), an amateur maker of 8mm monster flicks, is inspired by his science teacher, Mr. Rzykraski (Martin Landau), to use his science-fair skills to resurrect his dead bull terrier, Sparky.
Victor tries to hide his creation from his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara), a neighbor, Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder), and everyone else who might disapprove.
But Sparky runs off, and then why shouldn’t Victor’s classmates try to replicate his resurrection handiwork for themselves?
For Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows), this is a third excursion into stop-motion animation, having produced The Nightmare Before Christmas and co-directed Corpse Bride.
Inventively creepy imagery is in abundance, as is good-natured morbid humor. But this isn’t just a visual journey: the narrative is sturdy enough to support the animated flourishes.
Screenwriter John August has expanded the story from short to feature and has made it not just longer but more complex and emotionally satisfying. The inside-monster-movies references are certainly there to be noticed by buffs, but they don’t slow or weigh down the narrative at all. And Danny Elfman’s score is first-rate: aggressive, but not intrusive.
Distinctively and commandingly black-and-white, this nifty, atmospheric, whimsical little fable does cast a spell, but one which may be a bit too PG-scary for the little ones. True, the first half is pretty close to pure comedy, but the second half goes for the goosebumps and shivers, animated or otherwise.
So we’ll spark 2½ stars out of 4. Tim Burton’s Halloweeny Frankenweenie is no longer teeny-weeny.