Easily his best movie since “Big Fish,” Tim Burton’s black-and-white, stop-motion animated “Frankenweenie” does not represent a new idea.
“Frankenweenie” already is a live-action short film, which Burton made while working at Disney in 1984.
But with this new full-length feature, having gone back to his original notes and sketches, he seems to have rediscovered his passion for filmmaking. (Officially, the film is credited to writer John August, based on a screenplay by Leonard Ripps and story and characters by Burton.)
In his best early films, like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” Burton’s direction yielded some memorable, warm-hearted characters.
But lately, his design skills have overshadowed his talent for directing. The recent “Dark Shadows” could have been a grand soap opera that recaptured some of that early passion; instead, it wasted beautiful backgrounds on silly fish-out-of-water jokes.
Now comes young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), the humble hero of “Frankenweenie.”
Victor loves his dog, Sparky, so much that — after Sparky dies, chasing a baseball into the street — Victor defies the laws of nature, and brings him back to life.
Victor’s classmates, eager competitors in a school science fair, discover his secret and try to create bigger and more amazing creatures.
These new monsters — a cat-bat, a huge Godzilla-like turtle whose name is Shelley, sea monkeys, etc. — rampage out of control, while Sparky seems perfectly normal. The answer? Love. (It helps that Sparky’s happy, barky dog sounds are adorable.)
Burton also shows fatherly affection for Victor, who could be a representation of Burton himself — a socially uncertain misfit, withdrawn into science and science-fiction.
Aside from its potent, moody shadowy black-and-white cinematography, “Frankenweenie” is a veritable handbook of sci-fi and horror movie references. Burton clearly takes nostalgic comfort in them, and in his voice cast, which includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder, all veterans from Burton’s early days. (Mr. Depp, star of eight Burton films, is conspicuously absent.)
His goal with the movie is to have a good, spooky time with some old friends; the more gruesome and theological and creation themes for which “Frankenstein” is famous aren’t really here.
If parents balked at taking their children to the equally good “ParaNorman” in the summer, “Frankenweenie” nicely provides friendlier Halloween fare.
Meanwhile, here’s hoping that, like Frankenweenie, Burton’s enthusiasm is similarly resurrected.