Tim Burton returns to his roots with Frankenweenie, a stop-motion animated feature based on his 1984 short film of the same name, though rather than recapturing early magic, this boisterous but disposable riff on Frankenstein merely reconfirms the impression that the director is now coasting on the ghoulish scary-funny style that’s become his trademark. Working from John August’s busy but rarely witty script, Burton’s latest is awash in luscious black-and-white visuals that cheekily pay homage to classic Universal monster movies, while his character designs have the elongated bodies and limbs, giant eyes encircled by dark rings, and herky-jerky movements that previously defined A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.
There’s a creepy loveliness to the action that, despite being overly familiar, is nonetheless alluring, and it occasionally results in a choice sight gag, as with repeated reaction shots to a white furry cat named Mr. Whiskers, whose strange, befuddled “meows” are the proceedings’ funniest element. Laughs, unfortunately, are few and far between during the course of the story, which concerns an adolescent mad-science whiz and budding filmmaker (and, thus, Burton proxy) named Victor (Charlie Tahan) who, after a tragic car accident, uses lightning to bring his dead dog, Sparky, back to life. Burton dramatizes the relationship between Victor and Sparky with enough empathy to suggest an interest in genuine emotion, but there’s no substantive depth to his portrait of this bond once the dog is reborn. Sparky is no different than he was before, save for the fact that his limbs have a habit of falling off and water sprays out of his body when he drinks too much.
The film pays lips service to the vitality of science in the face of idiot groupthink via the plight of Victor’s Victor Price-like teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who, in an inspired bit, slanders the townspeople as stupid. Yet like Victor and Sparky’s loyalty toward each other, such a thread is treated as a mere embellishment for what soon turns into an adventure marked primarily by commotion. Everyone’s always running about in Frankenweenie, either to find Sparky and hide from prying eyes or to stop other malevolent kids who are up to no good, and the result is that no meaningful sense of purpose ever materializes. Rather than locating and developing a poignant or mature theme, Burton instead drops a few hints about larger concerns as a means of gussying up what soon devolves into simply a carnival of monsters, all of whom are born from the attempts of jealous classmates using Victor’s technique to revive their dead pets for an upcoming science fair.
Consequently, references to Godzilla commingle with allusions to The Bride of Frankenstein, the latter via Sparky’s romantic interest, a poodle owned by Victor’s neighbor, Elsa (Winona Ryder), who, in turn, is a goth-y misfit resembling Ryder’s character from Beetlejuice. These hat-tips to prior works also include Victor’s evil Igor-esque hunchback classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), and more often than not feel stale. Burton’s sense of playfulness feels forced throughout, and as the film progresses, any humor or inventiveness takes a backseat to tumultuous set pieces that reference Frankenstein (look, there’s the mob with torches!) in purely narrative, not thematic, ways.
Determined to keep everything safe and un-scary despite the film’s haunted-house vibe, Burton avoids any message and, aside from a bizarre psychic-cat-poop gag that’s surprising in its visual bluntness, dulls every edge so that he can provide a happily-ever-after fit for the Disney crowd. For all its aesthetic black-and-white beauty, Frankenweenie comes off far too monochromatically bland.