Starring: Voices of Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara
Directed by: Tim Burton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows”)
Written by: John August (“Corpse Bride,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”)
The legend of Tim Burton’s original incarnation of “Frankenweenie,” produced as a short film for his then-current employer Disney, was recounted over and over after Burton shot to the top of the Hollywood A-list in the late-’80s thanks to the success of “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.” The live-action black-and-white tale of a young boy who brings his dead dog back to life through the power of electricity was deemed too scary for young Disney audiences and Burton was fired. The studio felt the director had wasted their money on a frightening dud and its release was scrapped…so the legend goes, anyway.
Twenty-eight years later, Burton has revisited and re-worked “Frankenweenie” as a feature-length stop-motion animated affair. Once again, the film tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), a shy boy who spends his time making monster movies featuring his toys and starring his beloved dog Sparky. When his parents (voices of Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) decide Victor needs to get out of the house more, they force him to play in a baseball game. Victor ends up smacking an unlikely home run, which sends the excitable Sparky after the ball and straight into the street. Tragedy strikes, and Sparky is killed by a passing car. The grief-stricken Victor slinks his way through the following days, only to be filled with hope after his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voice of Martin Landau) demonstrates how electricity can re-animate a deceased frog. Victor sneaks out of the house to do some late-night grave robbing, hauling Sparky’s corpse into his makeshift laboratory. A few stitches and one lightning storm later, Victor Frankenstein again has his best friend Sparky at his side.
“Frankenweenie” doesn’t quite send Burton back to his creative peak, but it does do a pretty good job of washing away the recent stink of things like “Dark Shadows” or “Alice in Wonderland.” Instead of relying on Johnny Depp (who is refreshingly absent) mugging in a fright wig and pancake make-up, “Frankenweenie” wisely relishes in dark and twisted animation and delightful, dialogue-free sequences driven by Danny Elfman’s bouncy haunted-house-ready score. Unfortunately, though, the stretching of the original 30-minute short to feature-length leaves the plot threadbare and directionless in the middle. Characters like the stern Mr. Bergermeister (also Martin Short) and Victor’s classmate Elsa van Helsing (voice of Winona Ryder) are given ample screen time at the beginning only to be stranded with nothing to do by the time the third act rolls around. Also, a storyline featuring other reanimated house pets winds up mostly confusing. Despite being close to a return to form for Burton, it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Frankenweenie” just misses the mark.