Tim Burton scratches a long-standing itch with Frankenweenie, his third light-hearted stop-motion horror after The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Returning to a short film he made back in the 1980s at Disney before he was fired, he has logically expanded the story out to feature length without compromising the original’s charm. It's as Burton-esque as they come, which means there’s nothing here that will convert those who haven't got on with his characteristic preoccupations with gothic gloom and fairytale horror in the past. But for those who do, it's a true return to form. After the ravishing but hollow Alice in Wonderland, the director’s journey back to his roots sees him rediscover the simple joys of a childhood obsessed with darkness.
Victor Frankenstein is a boy who loves two things: conducting scientific experiments using various items nabbed from his mother's kitchen; and his pet dog Sparky. When a road accident brings a premature end to Sparky's life, Victor, inspired by his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, becomes determined to resurrect him. Astonishingly he succeeds, but trouble inevitably follows. Keeping the risen Sparky hidden from his parents becomes increasingly difficult, but this is nothing compared to what happens when Victor’s classmates discover what he’s been up to – their attempts to replicate the experiment prove disastrous to the whole town of New Holland.
Shot in pristine black and white, with an uncluttered storyline and cast of characters, Frankenweenie really is back to basics for Burton. As ever, the central character is a slightly leftfield version of Burton himself, though not played by Johnny Depp this time. The misunderstood Victor, his love for the energetic Sparky, and their escapades together - a ghoulish spin on Spielberg’s suburban adventure formula - is something audiences of any age can relate to, and forms the story's emotional core. Sparky’s initial passing is keenly felt by the whole family, and it’s well judged by Burton; neither overplayed nor hastily skipped over. From there, the director adds his familiar trappings: the sinister-looking intellectual Mr. Rzykruski, here resembling his idol Vincent Price and voiced by Martin Landau in full Bela Lugosi mode; the intolerant neighbour Mr. Burgemeister (Martin Short); the lone girl who understands the hero, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder); and the parents who don’t really understand their son (Catherine O'Hara and Short again).
No Burton film would be complete without nods to horror films of yore, and Frankenweenie is steeped in them, though not at the expense of the story or its intended youthful audience. New Holland initially resembles the terrifying suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, but eventually becomes the Mitteleuropean setting of Universal's classic 1930s/40s monster movies, of which at least half seemingly ended with a burning windmill (also included here). Also present and correct are the crackling, buzzing laboratory (inspired by Universal again, though with a more homemade flavour – bicycles and televisions are among the life-giving equipment) and the night-time visits to the graveyard – here a pet cemetery of course. The director, along with screenwriter John August, takes a leaf out of The Simpsons' book by having enormous fun with the names on tombstones; do keep your eyes peeled. And Hammer gets its own shout out, with another Burton hero Christopher Lee popping up as Dracula.
The climax shifts the film up a gear as critters of all description run amok through a funfair, providing plenty of thrills and giggles, even if the coda feels a bit too much like wishful-thinking on the part of Burton. But then this is very much a world of his making, and it’s only right his rules apply. With a familiar but worthy moral lesson about not judging by appearances, along with the advocation of science as neither good nor bad but as a thoughtful approach to life’s many questions, Frankenweenie's lovingly crafted gothic charms have much to offer. And if just one kid becomes obsessed with horror films as a result of watching it, I'm sure Tim Burton would deem the whole project a success.