Film review: Frankenweenie

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THERE is one theme Tim Burton returns to again and again: that of the imaginative misfit trying to deal with the squares who misunderstand him.

Frankenweenie (PG)

Director: Tim Burton

Running time: 88 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

For instance, there’s the one about a young man and a favourite pet, who enjoyed a brief life before being cruelly bumped off. The boy is distraught, until he finds a way to bring it back to life.

That’s the story of Frankenweenie, a 30-minute live action short made by Burton in 1984 for Disney. The House of Mouse hated it so much that they fired Burton and dumped his movie. Almost 30 years later, however, Frankenweenie has been restitched, reanimated and remade – again, for Disney.

Like Frankenstein’s monster it’s not a seamless affair, but Frankenweenie seems to have engaged Burton’s full attention after a string of rather impersonal projects. His affection for this youthful project is clear; in a sense, this is Burton’s Hugo, a film about the schlock horror movies he watched and loved as a child, where the homage isn’t just visually acute, it’s heartfelt.

Shot in black and white and, of course, 3D, Frankenweenie is set in one of Burton’s vaguely retro suburbs where young Victor (voiced by Charlie ­Tahan) has one close friend, his affectionate dim bulb dog Sparky – at least, until a ball game goes awry and Sparky goes under a car. Victor is inconsolable until a science lesson about dead frogs and electricity inspires him to exhume and patch his pooch, then dose him with lightning. Sparky is back in the room and apparently spiritually unchanged. Physically, however, he’s now a bit of a fly magnet, and if he scratches or wags his tail too hard, bits drop off.

Unfortunately, creepy hunchback kid Edgar Gore (“E Gore”) manages to uncover how ­Victor has restored his pet, and soon other children are digging up the corpses of old pets and jolting them into life, with far less benign ­results.

Burton’s weakness remains his storytelling; none of the characters in the film has a strong personality, and a villainous Japanese character seems downright racially insensitive. There’s also a sense of missed opportunities – the film never attempts the kind of social commentary that Burton’s favourite creature features tried to build into their films, and a speech by the school science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau and built to look like Vincent Price) which accuses people of being ignorant and fearful of technology and progress doesn’t quite hang together, especially when it’s claimed that science comes from the heart as well as the head. A nice thought, but I don’t think many laboratory beagles would agree.

Still, if you grew up in an era when BBC2 was still happy to screen Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man late on a Saturday night, there’s a lot of fun to be had from Tim’s tributes to Universal horror, including the moment when a poodle receives a shock that leaves her with a Bride of Frankenstein zigzag in her pelt. There’s also a bit of self-homage – the voice cast includes Winona Ryder, reprising her sulky goth girl from Beetlejuice, and the models by British puppeteer specialists Mackinnon & Saunders have the spindly limbs and insomniac eyes of Corpse Bride characters.

Running at a brief 88 minutes, Frankenweenie holds together as both a Hallowe’en romp and the most enjoyable Tim Burton picture for years.

After cluttered ramblings like Dark Shadows and Alice In Wonderland, some of us had almost given up hope that this director might ever re-animate his gothic mad genius. But it is alive… ALIVE. Bwahahaha! «

• On general release from Wednesday