Tim Burton’s status as an outsider and iconoclast has curdled of late. The man who once thrilled us with the surreal adventures of manchild Pee-wee Herman, moved us with the lovelorn longing of Edward Scissorhands and had the bipartisan gall to incinerate all of Congress in Mars Attacks! is now a fatigued company man. Once Tinseltown’s defiant black sheep, he’s become a full-on Hollywood stooge (witness CGI-heavy mediocrity like Alice in Wonderland or this year’s moribund Dark Shadows remake). It makes sense that Burton would return to one of his earliest works, the flawed yet promising black-and-white 1984 short Frankenweenie, to try and revivify the spirits. He nearly gets there: As in its live-action predecessor, this 3-D stop-motion-animated redo tells the story of introverted suburban kid Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), who harnesses some inclement weather to bring his dead dog, Sparky, back to life.
Burton’s visual imagination runs wild: Students at Victor’s school resemble horror-movie characters like Igor or icons like Boris Karloff. Delightful throwaway gags are plentiful, from the dour defacement of the Disney logo to a Hello Kitty gravestone. There’s even an inspired pet-cemetery resurrection that quickly turns into a Destroy All Monsters–style free-for-all. What still eludes Burton is the ability to deepen the superficial allure of his visions. Victor is a brooding bore, defined more by his skeletal frame and abyss-black hair than by any genuine human emotion (compare him with the complicated protagonist of the thematically similar, movingly messier ParaNorman). And though the tale demands a darker outcome, the director disappointingly goes the Mouse House happy-ending route with a reprise of the original short film’s finale—one that somehow plays with even more cringeworthy sentimentality.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich