When Tim Burton recycles, his heart often doesn't seem to be in it (cough -- Dark Shadows -- cough).
But recycling himself is a whole other ballgame. Burton's heart and weird inner-child is 100% in the hilarious Frankenweenie, a stop-action, black-and-white 3D feature based on the "unreleasable" half-hour short that spelled the end of his early tenure at Disney in the '80s.
What was too dark for The Mouse then, is now a heavily marketed Disney feature, and the best and funniest of a trio of mordant kid comedies that opened at a theatre near you this season (including Laika's ParaNorman and Sony's Hotel Transylvania).
It's also the most certifiably scary (parents of younger children take note) and emotionally affecting. We're talking kids' dogs dying here, people!
More importantly for the adults who take children to these things, Frankenweenie is awash in sly, geeky grown-up horror references that would kill you if you turned them into a drinking game. We're talking a turtle named Shelley (after the Frankenstein author), various giant monsters, Gremlins, Bambi vs. Godzilla (!) and virtually every horror film Universal Pictures put on the screen way back when.
There's even a teacher drawn to look like Vincent Price, and voiced by Martin Landau, the guy who portrayed Bela Lugosi in Burton's Ed Wood. Reference piled upon reference.
But for all the "in-jokes," there remains something inherently funny about kids whose mannerisms are meant to evoke Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff. It seems to work, even for those who have no idea.
The premise is simple enough. In a '60s/'70s suburb, very much like the Burbank that Burton grew up in, a boy named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) shoots horror films on Super 8 (just like young Burton did), with his dog Sparky standing in for various monsters.
His concerned parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, who voice six characters between them), push him into baseball, which begins a series of events that ends with Sparky chasing a ball into the street and, well, this movie IS called Frankenweenie.
Inspired by his oddball science teacher Mr. Rzykruski -- and under the pretext of a science fair experiment -- Victor undertakes the old bringing-'em-back-from-the-dead-with-lightning trick with familiar objects and brick-a-brack.
And yes, Sparky comes back. Not exactly a spoiler if you've seen the movie's poster. Of course, it's the inevitable payback from messing with nature that is Frankenweenie's end game. Before long, word gets around about Victor's successful (and likely science fair-winning) experiment, and before long, every kid in this town of misfits is zapping every dead creature they can find. The result is a last act of inspired mayhem, which in its retro execution, actually seems like a lost reel of '50s animation from stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen.
Burton is all there on the screen. He undertook all the character art, and the direction (which he might otherwise hand off to his Nightmare Before Christmas collaborator Henry Selick). And he assembled a voice cast of veterans from his early career (Winona Ryder, O'Hara, Landau, Short).
It's simply the best and truest thing Burton's done in many years.
(This film is rated PG)