Review originally published September 21, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Fantastic Fest.
The beginning is the end is the beginning, I suppose, for Tim Burton's career. His 1984 short, "Frankenweenie," about a boy bringing his deceased dog back to life, saw the goth auteur-to-be fired from Disney. Yet here we are, nearly three decades later, staring down a feature-length version of "Frankenweenie" greenlit by the very same studio, seeing Burton return to classical stop-motion animation (and even black-and-white at that) after the numbing digital parades that were "Alice in Wonderland" and this year's "Dark Shadows."
The Frankensteins' young son, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), is an fledgling inventor who seriously adores his dog, Sparky. Mr. Frankenstein wants Victor to broaden his interests, though, and try out for sports, and his first baseball game sadly results in Sparky's running into the street after a fly ball and being struck by a car. The boy is despondent until his intense science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), suggests that a body could be brought back to life with an electrical surge. Once Sparky is resuscitated, Victor tries — and fails — to keep him a secret, setting off a chain reaction of classmates resurrecting their own dead pets to calamitous effect.
It's amusing to see the petty escalation of a science fair, of all things, serve as the main plot thrust this time, and even though screenwriter John August ("Big Fish," "Corpse Bride") worked to expand a 30-minute short thrice over, there's very little apparent strain to show for it. Sparky ultimately gets to serve as much more of a hero than a pariah. Even just enjoying more early adventures with him chasing cats and flirting with neighboring dogs makes it seem worthwhile, and it feels all the more remarkable for how little dialogue is used for stretches at a time. August's dialogue is often snappy when used, though — "You told me you'd bring [Sparky] back if you could!" "But it was impossible when I said that!" —- and there's even room for one decent poop joke amid all the cleverness.
Just as Wes Anderson's diorama-like approach was splendidly suited to the animation style in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," Burton's trademark aesthetic translates well to stop-motion film, as per "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Corpse Bride" and now "Frankenweenie." The town of New Holland (where better to have a climactic windmill?) is essentially the quaint '50s-like neighborhood of "Edward Scissorhands" with tulips in place of shrubs, full of "modest homes at modest prices" and filled with colorful characters ranging from the hunchbacked Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer) to the hilariously wide-eyed Weird Girl (Catherine O'Hara, who also plays Victor's mom; Martin Short voices his dad, and both actors fill other roles as well).
Eccentric, knowing details litter each frame. Mr. Rzykruski rants about how lightning strikes are more comparable to "electrons fleeing to the Land of Opportunity!" than anything else, mocks the small minds of the fearful township and gives off a distinct Vincent Price vibe. The original short's "Bride of Frankenstein" nod remains intact. The Frankensteins' neighbors are the Van Helsings, including young daughter Elsa (Winona Ryder), and the mayor next door is very much designed in the mold of trout-mouthed Rankin-Bass villains. Even Burton regular and Hammer veteran Christopher Lee manages a fitting live-action cameo of sorts.
What's more, the nostalgic touches are reinforced by the era-appropriate paranoia and the third act's full-on creature-feature approach. "Frankenweenie" has the bad luck to arrive somewhat on the heels of "ParaNorman," a superior ‘80s horror throwback with its own messages of acceptance. However, there are still plenty of casually macabre gags — for instance, Sparky chasing the water that sprays out of his seams just after drinking it — and slightly scary bits to enjoy here. It's the best thing with Burton's name on it in the past five years, regardless.