Frankenweenie
Disney


It makes a strange kind of sense that Tim Burton’s best movie in almost two decades would be a remake of a short film he made all the way back in 1984, before he was swallowed up by the Hollywood blockbuster machine and devoted to remaking other people’s stories.

Not that there isn’t tremendous craft in projects like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, but there’s very little of Tim Burton in the finished films; most of his projects feel like work for hire. And even in the movies he does care about, there’s always that moment where you can feel him losing interest in the script and leaving the writers to push it the rest of the way home. (Remember the scene in Planet of the Apes where Tim Roth jumps around on a chair for a minute and a half? Every Tim Burton film after Mars Attacks! has a moment like that.)

So when Burton announced he’d be remaking his 1984 live-action short Frankenweenie  as a stop-motion feature, I was more than a little skeptical. The slender story about a little kid named Victor Frankenstein who brings his dog back from the dead didn’t seem like it could support an extended running time, and this was a story Burton had already told three decades ago. Was this just an admission that he was out of ideas? And by the way, wow, did Dark Shadows suck.

I’m glad to be wrong. The new Frankenweenie is terrific, expanding on the original work in strange and delightful new ways. Victor’s parents, voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, are proper characters instead of absent sketches, and Victor’s beloved dog Sparky gets a distinct canine personality both before and after his unfortunate accident. There’s some marvelous stuff with Victor’s creepy schoolmates, a wonderful cameo from Martin Landau as a principled science teacher and a note-perfect turn from Winona Ryder as Victor’s mopey neighbour.

Most important of all, Burton doesn’t shy away from the tragic aspects of his story, letting Victor (voiced by Charlie St. Cloud’s Charlie Tahan) grieve for Sparky and treating the scenes leading to his resurrection with genuine gravity. The original short was restrained by having flesh-and-blood actors and a real dog; the new movie’s stop-motion puppets give Burton license to be as grim and mournful as the material needs to be.

When Victor tenderly retrieves Sparky’s corpse from a pet cemetery, it’s one of the saddest, loveliest images of Burton’s career, the camera pulled back as if out of respect for the awful intimacy of the moment. (Both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride had characters accompanied by ghostly dogs; this is clearly one of the director’s buttons.) But as serious as Frankenweenie is capable of being, it’s mostly a lot of very goofy fun, as Victor’s success with Sparky triggers a series of copycat experiments by his science-fair rivals that quickly spiral out of control. And this lets Burton go wild, building to a climax that plays like the best Godzilla movie never made. Actually, Gamera is probably the more appropriate comparison.

And as it swings into that home stretch, Frankenweenie becomes both a delirious entertainment and a genuine work of art. It’s a reminder that Burton has always been at his best working with physical effects – the tactile ghoulies and stop-motion sandworms of Beetlejuice; the miniatures of Batman and Edward Scissorhands – and that the guy can still tell a story with grace and heart when he’s moved to care. Even if it’s one he’s told before.

(The original Frankenweenie short is included among the Blu-ray special features, if you want to compare the two. I would highly recommend this.)

E-mail Norman Wilner at houselightsup@hotmail.com.