Frankenweenie is the story of a little boy who can't deal with the fact that the one thing he loves most of all is gone forever, so he devotes a great deal of time and resources to reviving that thing, creating something weird and foreign and upsetting, but so personally important to him that it doesn't care. And that boy's name is Tim Burton. Oh Tim Burton, I have just BURNED you, haha!
No, really, it doesn't actually take that much bravery to observe that the situation explored within the movie is awfully like the situation of its making: if the plot is about middle-school social outcast and amateur filmmaker Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) exhuming and reviving, through artificial means, his beloved dog Sparky, so too is Burton using Frankenweenie, a stop-motion animated remake of his career-making 1984 short, to exhume and revive the old-school monster movies that he, like most awkwardly socialised film geeks, grew up on back in the day, movies which have to some degree or another informed virtually all of his films. From Victor's name, it's pretty clear what the primary point of reference is going to be, even if you're not familiar with the original version of the story (and for the record, you should be: it's distinctly better than the remake, and one of Burton's most emotionally rich projects ever). But the references to Universal's Frankenstein also extend to a character clearly modeled, both visually and vocally, on Boris Karloff; there's an old mill that features prominently in the finale, when it does, yes, catch on fire; and the references to other old horror would ruin this review if I tried to name them all. A creepy science teacher who looks just enough like Vincent Price that it's surely no accident (he's voiced, with a Polish accent, by Martin Landau); a giant kaiju turtle (named Shelley, not Gamera; and it growls with an awfully Godzilla-ish shriek); a mean, unhelpful Mayor Burgemeister (Martin Short, in one of three roles) - the burgomaster being one of the chief stock characters in countless Universal and Hammer pictures. And speaking of Hammer, Burton regular Christopher Lee does not voice a new character, though he does appear in the form of footage from the 1958 Hammer Dracula.
At a certain point, in fact, one starts to get the impression that Frankenweenie, 2012 edition, is primarily a device to permit Burton to indulge in reference after reference to the kind of movies he treasured growing up. Most of which, in fairness, are awfully fun - the parody of the Universal mad scientist lab sets, with all the spinning discs and mysterious electric arcs being provided by run of the mill household objects, is a particular highlight - and none of which are so obscure that the movie turns into a smug "spot the reference" game for classic horror aficionados and nobody else. It's a family movie, when all is said and done, and while it's a rare 8-year-old indeed who'll get more than a portion of the cultural touchstones on display - a rarer 8-year-old still who'll have any clue why the hell Victor makes his home movies on what appear to be thin strips of plastic on spools (the movie takes place in the same pointedly indeterminate Eisenhower Era of the Future time frame as Edward Scissorhands) if it's the present, it's a present without the internet) - but the film is operating at a register that the 8-year-old isn't meant to find alienating, and for ever slantwise reference to something as relatively obscure as Gamera, there are ten fairly obvious mad scientist jokes that are welcoming, rather than insulating.
But as a movie unto itself, telling a story that thrives and breathes above and beyond the references; maybe not quite as much. The '84 Frankenweenie already told a perfectly-structured version of the same story in about a third of the running time, and it has all the heart and soul it could possibly require; most of the added material is in the form of scenes that don't tie into anything else (multiple times in the movie, a sequence will introduce some theme or idea or even an entire character that seems to be completely forgotten about afterwards; hence, for example, a damned peculiar pro-science lecture right in the middle - a funny one, with Landau firing on all cylinders, but one that does not make any sense within the greater context of the narrative), or with references that exist just to show us that yep, Burton and screenwriter John August sure do know their history.
On the other hand, it's been a decade or more since Burton seems to have had a subject that engaged him on a personal level to nearly the degree that Frankenweenie apparently does, to judge from the degree that all those narrative parentheses are clearly born of love and affection for the form. The mechanical, commercial Burton of Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is not visible at all here, and that alone is a reason to celebrate; it's too early, of course, to call it a sustained return to form, but the warped energy of the earlier, better Burton, complete with a nastily black sense of humor for a Disney-released family movie (cat lovers will be especially traumatised), hasn't been this prominent in a long time, and it is a keen reminder for those of us who used to love the man, just what it is that made us love him. If nothing else, the return of former, beloved Burton actors like Landau, Catherine O'Hara, and Winona Ryder, and the banishment of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter - the first time in sixteen years that the director has made a film without either of those performers - helps to make this feel like the Burton of yore.
It looks the part, certainly: production designer Rick Heinrichs, working on the little sets of stop-motion animation, has created a marvelous little jewelery box of moody, kiddie-style Expressionist locations, beautifully shot by cinematographer Peter Sorg (the black-and-white film has more complex lighting than just about any live-action film I've seen this year), with character designs straight out of Burton's last stop-motion film, the underrated Corpse Bride, only between the monochrome and the exaggerated classic horror texture of the film, they end up working even better here. If anything hurts the movie, it's that ParaNorman came out this year, and for all that Frankenweenie is obviously made with love and personality, that earlier film is operating at a level of technique and sophistication that Burton and his team aren't aware of in even the vaguest sense.
Which is not a fair reason to ding the film, but it's hard not to get hung up on it; and with Laika having thus stolen Burton's lunch, it's a lot easier to notice things like the flimsiness unto non-existence of the story, or the population of one-note characters. None of which break the movie, since its goals are something completely different than deep story and complex psychology, and for what it's doing - playing with horror iconography - it could hardly be more successful. But the bar has been raised, both for visuals and for story complexity, and it's a pity that Frankenweenie, however much it represents a massive shift in the right direction for its beleaguered director, fails entirely to clear that bar.