Tim Burton’s weird but always warm filmography has entailed a lot of reanimating of childish things, and not always to positive ends. He’s attempted to put his artistic thumbprint on classic children’s literature, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to his woeful visit to Alice in Wonderland, but many of us, and probably the ghosts of Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll, wish he hadn’t. By contrast, with his animated wonder Frankenweenie, Burton does what he does best: concocting a surreal world with links to the “normal American life” we know and tapping into the realms of childhood memories, both his own and those of the collective sandbox.
As a sneak preview of the cultural mashing-up to come in this black-and-white, quirkily tasty, stop-motion puppeteering project, the film opens with a clever film-within-an-animated-film. Here, our young loner inventor/filmmaker hero screens a homemade movie for his parents starring his beloved, but deceased, pooch Sparky. Sparky becomes the revitalized star of the show when an experiment brings him back to life, for the sake of love and a Science Fair project. Frankenweenie itself is a remake and expansion of Burton’s 1984 short film, and memories of Burton’s own youth and filmic obsessions bubble up and sizzle throughout the movie, including a sagely Vincent Price–like science teacher character, a teasing snippet of the film Dracula on the family TV (the only live action moment in the film), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein themes revisited and retooled for smalltown America.
Americana-wise, love of the family dog and the lure and lore of baseball run throughout the thing, along with the story of the shy boy genius working up his good magic in the attic. Darker winds of fate and storyline-juicing enter the scene when other, less-pure-hearted kids join in the reanimating game, culminating in a wild-ride scene where Sea Monkeys, a giant killer turtle, and mutant creatures run amok through the quiet town of New Holland.
With Frankenweenie, Burton’s unique artistic vision is reborn in the form of a wit-lined and film-conscious family movie that appeals to the ageless child’s eye, not to mention the cinephile within.