By reaching back into his own past and movie history, the recently fumbly Tim Burton has gotten a grip with "Frankenweenie." Expanded by screenwriter John August from Burton's 1984 live-action short of the same name, the stop-motion-animated "Frankenweenie" finds the filmmaker in fine fettle.
Like its predecessors (Burton's short and the 1931 "Frankenstein"), "Frankenweenie" plays out in black-and-white. Bold, man, bold. For Disney to put out a 2012 animated 3D family picture in black-and-white can mean only one thing: The megahit "Alice in Wonderland" wasn't a complete waste after all. It allowed studio bosses to trust their artist in residence enough to look past the chiaroscuro and see green.
The story concerns young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), reimagined as a child of suburbia. New Holland is a town that's happily set in its ways, from local holiday "Dutch Day" to traditional lessons in the schoolroom. Give them that old-time religion; it's good enough for them. As such, these 'burbs are no place for Victor, a curious child who takes to his science class in a spirit of experimentation. Science comes in handy when Victor's beloved dog Sparky dies, necessitating electrical resuscitation.
Flipping the cautionary themes of Mary Shelley's original source material, "Frankenweenie" plays out as a primarily pro-science parable. August establishes a plain conflict between the self-servingly narrow-minded status quo and the socially progressive attitude represented by Victor's heavily accented science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (a terrific Martin Landau), who bluntly addresses the school's parents as "ignorant" and "stupid," and tells Victor, "They like what science gives them, but not the questions, no."
Rzykruski stands as the exception to the film's rule, expressed by Victor's dad, that "Sometimes adults don't know what they're talking about." Obviously, that's a message kids are ready to hear. Parents shouldn't take offense (Victor's parents are as loving as they are clueless). If anything, it's cat lovers who will be miffed, given the sinister weirdness of local feline Mr. Whiskers (three words: psychic cat scat).
Trappings like Mr. Whiskers help August and Burton to fill out the story, which winds up playing on the science-fiction horrors of '50s cinema when Victor's peers step up the Science Fair competition. No points for the character who's a squinting Communist Chinese stereotype, but Burton and his voice cast (including Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara in multiple delightful roles) justifiably have a ball bringing new life to the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.
Along with the 3D goose, "Frankenweenie" boasts Burton's distinctive design work, and creatively eager stop-motion work (check out the streaking raindrop shadows, evocative of Conrad Hall's cinematography for "In Cold Blood").
Of course "Frankenweenie" offers eye candy, a celebration of cinema, and a heartfelt, central "boy and his dog" story, but it's a pleasant surprise that the picture also goes out of its way to encourage free-thinking square pegs to avoid gaping round holes.