In 1984, Tim Burton, a 25-year-old Disney animator, made a 29-minute live-action film called Frankenweenie. In this lively tale, a schoolboy named Victor Frankenstein (Barret Oliver) revives his beloved dog, Sparky, who's been killed by a car. Burton would go on to create increasingly frustrating Hollywood blockbusters such as 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas, 2005's Corpse Bride and this year's Dark Shadows.
Part of what makes the feature-length Frankenweenie so charming is that, for the first time in ages, you can see that enthusiastic youngster with the light touch. It's in the opening sequence, where young Victor (Charlie Tahan) shows his parents a stop-motion movie he's made. It's in Victor's next-door neighbor, Mr. Burgermeister, who bears a striking resemblance to a stop-motion villain from the Rankin-Bass Christmas classic Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. It's even in Burton's decision to film in black-and-white, which makes him seem like an upstart trying to make the most of the available resources.
Stretching a 30-minute movie to 90 minutes can feel like lengthening a term paper by monkeying with the margins. Burton and screenwriter John August achieve hit-and-miss success, primarily by building the plot around a science fair organized by creepy science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Burton's latest tribute to Vincent Price. There's a terrific scene involving a meeting of the school's concerned parents, which Mr. Rzykruski uses to lambaste them for their fear and ignorance. It feels like a perfect setup for a torch-wielding mob, but it's also part of an awkward plea to respect science.
The science-fair subplot also kicks off the film's big finish, in which Victor's classmates jump-start their own dead creatures. The climax includes some wonderfully weird stuff, from a Miracle-Gro-infused turtle to mutant "Sea-Monkeys" that emerge from a swimming pool like escapees from the third act of Gremlins. Yet it's also the kind of manic finale that has made so many of Burton's recent live-action films feel overstuffed and underwhelming.
Instead, Frankenweenie is entertaining thanks to quirky minutiae, like the wide-eyed weird girl who reads portents into her cat's feces and a tombstone engraved with a cat-face design and the words "Goodbye Kitty." Burton could have incorporated even more of this sensibility. And he could have built in more interaction between Victor and Burgermeister's visiting niece, Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder). At times, Frankenweenie feels like a patchwork.
At other times, though, it's a glimpse into the creative mind of a filmmaker who remembers what it was like to unveil his oddball vision for the first time. It's nice to see that guy come back to life.