Tim Burton, the distinctive filmmaker beloved for mixing quirky and macabre with innocent and heartfelt, has been in a creative free fall.
His 2010 version of "Alice in Wonderland" was a commercial success, but the rabbit hole it sent us down was far from dreamy. This summer's "Dark Shadows" was even worse, thanks to a batty script and erratic direction.
So, what a pleasure to see that the Burton we know and love is back.
His latest endeavor, the playful and sweetly weird "Frankenweenie," is a welcome return to form for Burton, who helmed such iconic films as "Beeetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands."
Using imaginative and impressive puppets to bring characters to life, Burton crams the new stop-motion animated film with his favorite themes -- the pain of ostracization, a celebration of differences and a love for old movies -- then weaves those elements into the framework of James Whale's "Frankenstein" film from 1931.
He tinkers with the classic story quite a bit. The protagonist, a lonely boy named Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan), revives his beloved dead pooch, Sparky, after it was nailed by a car. The Mary Shelley-inspired storyline gives Burton a chance to cut loose with a crazy monster mash-up finale and a rather bold message that heralds scientific advances when used for the right reasons.
In more ways than one, the lusciously animated black-and-white production -- shot to affectionately mirror the texture of old horror flicks -- signals Burton's return to his roots.
"Frankenweenie" expands on his same-titled, live-action Disney short from 1984. The redo, while not as innovative as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- which he co-wrote and produced -- reminds us how weirdly charming and captivating the director can be.
As usual, Burton runs into some of the problems that have always plagued him. The pacing -- especially at the beginning -- isn't always smooth, and the 3-D adds nothing except an inflated ticket price.
Mostly, though, this is a rebound, with Burton and co-screenwriter John August ("Dark Shadows") mining familiar themes played out in his best films -- "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands."
Certainly, it looks terrific. Burton and his team of animators have stylishly captured the '70s-era burbs. Their small town of New Holland, a place where all the kids look like they're love children of Edward Gorey, is a feast for the eyes. But be warned: Some of what they've dreamed up is ghoulish, so parents should think twice about taking young children.
However, if dark and twisted is how you like your Burton movies, you're in luck. There are quirky misfits aplenty, a standout being the serious blonde "Weird Girl" who believes the poop of her kitty, Mr. Whiskers, portends the future. There are also numerous clever movie references. Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara deserve props for each voicing three characters, including Victor's parents.
Add in an East European science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, deadpan hilarious as a Vincent Price clone), who considers Americans idiots for fearing science, a mob of angry parents, and a potential romance for Victor with the visiting niece (Winona Ryder) of the town's bulb-bellied mayor, and you have a gallery of distinct characters that deserve a Burton copyright.
They all make for silly, amusing company to keep and, like the film itself, inspire hope that Burton is just as poised to bounce back for his next live-action feature.
* * *
(thematic elements, scary images and action)
With the voices of: Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau,
Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder
1 hour, 27 minutes