On paper, the fact that Tim Burton has remade as a feature his little-seen 1984 debut short, done at Disney while he was a contract animator at the studio, seems to be a clear sign the director is essentially trading lazily on his reputation as a fine purveyor of whimsical pop-gothic entertainment. Yet, this expanded remake of the short that pretty much set Mr. Burton's aesthetic and thematic foundations turns out to be his sweetest, most heartfelt and - dare one say? - personal film since, at least, the underrated Big Fish.

     Part of it is due to Mr. Burton's decision to shoot Frankenweenie as a stop-motion animated feature, returning to the technique successfully explored by The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride; the handcrafted quality and lush textures of Mackinnon & Saunders' puppets and Rick Heinrichs' exquisitely minute production design render the film a pleasure to behold. But there is also the sheer pleasure of a simpler, easier tale more in tune with Mr. Burton's offbeat sensibility and closer to his own experiences as an awkward teenager, set in late 1950s suburbia as lonely high school nerd Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) plays with fire by resuscitating his dead dog Sparky, inspired by his substitute science teacher's classes.

     The original story owed a lot to classic horror movies and creature features, and regular Burton collaborator John August's script super-sizes the in-joke references as well, ranging from the Hammer Dracula films to the original Universal Frankensteins (look for the clever way Bride of Frankenstein is woven in) and throwing in Japanese monster movies, atomic horror and even Batman into the fray. (The film is also, understandably, in black and white, which makes its 3-D incarnation even more of a throwback to 1950s horror.) None of this, however, would make any sense if Mr. Burton and his animation director, Trey Thomas, were unable to give these angular, surreal characters the essential sparkle of life, and therein lies Frankenweenie's key charm. The design and animation of Sparky, Victor's electrically undead best friend, is such a wondrous, awesome achievement that makes this zombie a worthy heir of Disney's many animal heroes, in a tale of teenage resilience and self-reliance that wouldn't be amiss in the studio's many classic productions.

     Yes, it seems as if Mr. Burton is hedging his bets by remaking Frankenweenie for an audience that probably never even saw the original short, and it doesn't bode well that it is coming in such a short time after Paranorman and its junior-horror-movie concept. But if all of the director's bet-hedgings were as smart as this, we wouldn't be grumbling so much about his recent auto-pilot run.

Voice cast: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton
Animation director: Trey Thomas
Screenplay: John August, from the screenplay by Lenny Ripps for Mr. Burton's Frankenweenie short, based on a story by Mr. Burton
Cinematography: Peter Sorg  (b&w, digital intermediate by Company 3, DeLuxe prints)
Music: Danny Elfman
Designer: Rick Heinrichs
Puppet designs: Mackinnon & Saunders
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Mark Solomon
Visual effects: Tim Ledbury
Producers: Mr. Burton, Allison Abbate (Walt Disney Pictures)
USA, 2012, 87 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 1 (Lisbon), October 9th 2012


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