Yesterday’s iconoclasts make up tomorrow’s status quo. When Tim Burton, a young animator working on early-Eighties Disney flops like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, brought his superiors the final cut of a live-action short he’d made about a boy who reanimates his dead dog, the House of Mouse was absolutely horrified, unceremoniously dumping him out on his ass for making a film children would never want to see. It took mavericks at Warner Bros and Fox to eventually greenlight Tim’s twisted view of reality, aided and abetted by his mentors and inspirations: Pee-Wee Herman, Vincent Price, Micheal Keaton, Ed Wood, Danny Elfman, and of course Johnny Depp. And yet, when Batman was released in 1991 and Burton was king of the weird, the original “Frankenweenie” short still couldn’t get a planned release, because the MPAA insisted on giving the film — which contained not one dirty word or naked body part — a PG rating. The whole death thing was just too… morbid.
The world of 2012, on the other hand, is one in which children not just allowed but often encouraged to confront their dark obsessions; not only is it okay to identify with the re-animated corpse, today’s kid has to worry about his Halloween zombie costume being better than his parents’. Tim’s world is still surreal, but it’s no longer considered a threat.
Having lost the thread after his Oscar-winning biopic Ed Wood, Burton’s since ping-ponged between self-cannibalization and gun-for-hire mediocrity. So returning to his original inspiration seems just the ticket to remind him of what attracted him to the oddball in the first place. The stop-motion universe this twisted boy-and-his-dog story now lives in seems outwardly normal, if you’ve got your eyes closed: awash in Disneyesque strings and family values as it is, the world boy scientist Victor Frankenstein lives in is bathed in shadow and populated by creepy, sunken-eyed obsessives who never take no for an answer. You don’t have to squint hard to see Victor as Burton’s inner child, mostly alone with his obsessions, forced at times to play along with a world that labors under delusions of normalcy. The town’s new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau (and sounding pointedly like Bela Lugosi), is his mentor, railing against the simpletons who fear what they don’t understand. And Sparky, the titular reanimated hound, can be seen as Tim’s muse, stitched together from separated parts (ew) and thriving despite its own.implausibility. Burton’s been situated at the head of a ton of bland reboots that attempted to siphon off his quirkiness, but this is the first time since the well-meaning but misguided Mars Attacks! where you can feel the joy of his creation. Pun possibly intended.
The original ran only about half an hour, though, so Tim had to stretch this daymare into a full-length feature, and he does it brilliantly. Not only does he keep several shots and scenes as a homage to his original vision, he expands the original world, creating an entire town of closet freaks waiting to be shown the light. Or, rather, darkness. In the 1984 original, Victor’s neighbors were mainly tastelessly camp suburbanites who didn’t get his aesthetic, but here they’re all Burton’s own creations, afraid of their own terrifying possibilities — no fair spoiling it, but when they decide to mimic Victor, all hell literally breaks loose. And guess who’s the only character that can show them how to harness their ghoulishness? It may have seemed like a desperation move at first, but Frankenweenie’s new model dog is where Burton comes to terms with his legacy: he knows he’ll never change the world again, but he can finally feel at home in this one.