"Based on an original idea by Tim Burton," it says in the credits. It's hard to read that phrase and not snicker a little. In recent years, the popular knock on Burton is that he doesn't have any original ideas left—that all he's capable of now is taking someone else's idea and turning it into gothic cotton candy.
But Frankenweenie is, indeed, a Tim Burton original. Only, it's an original idea that's close to 30 years old. In 1984, a few years out of art college and working for Disney, Burton made his first live-action short film, about a young boy who screws bolts into his dead dog's neck and brings the pooch back to life a la Frankenstein's monster. It got him fired from the House of Mouse, but it also caught the attention of Paul Reubens, who recruited Burton to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure, thus kicking off the most creatively prosperous period of Burton's professional life. It's probably no wonder, then, that after the last decade of diminishing inspiration, the director would want to revisit the story that—pun slightly intended—sparked his career in the first place.
Or, if you want to be cynical about it, Burton has just taken the next logical step backward in his ongoing devolution from genuine visionary to one-trick magician: He's now remaking himself.
Maybe that's what he should have been doing all along. Frankenweenie is easily the best thing Burton has done in many years. It is, by no means, a true sign of revitalization—how could it be, really?—but it is a reminder that the world wasn't wrong for embracing Burton's darkly cartoonish vision in the late '80s. It's not like he went and just made the same movie over again, either: Animated in gorgeous black-and-white stop motion (and shot in thankfully unobtrusive 3-D), the film goes places the original couldn't, particularly with its creature-feature climax.
If it feels familiar, this time around it's not because Burton is repeating himself, even though, technically, that's exactly what he's doing. By resurrecting one of his earliest works—once deemed "too scary for kids" by Disney, who, funnily enough, bankrolled this remake—he proves how much of an influence he's had on modern movies. Just a few months ago, Laika released ParaNorman, another stop-motion flick about a preteen outcast obsessed with the macabre and learning to cope with death. It's impossible to imagine its existence without The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it's entirely probable that movie wouldn't exist were it not for Frankenweenie.
ParaNorman, as well as 2009's similarly indebted Coraline, might plumb greater emotional depths; Frankenweenie, now and then, is the simple tale of a boy and his dog. But what it lacks in scope it makes up for with a tight, focused narrative. At 87 minutes, it hardly feels like a short story stretched too long. There are lessons to be learned here—for Burton especially. Hopefully it won't be 30 years before he tackles his next original idea. PG.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Frankenweenie opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Stadium 11, Bridgeport, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville.