Death becomes Tim Burton, whose best films feature corpses or the undead. For example, his 30-minute "Frankenweenie" (1984, see sidebar), in which young Victor Frankenstein watches his dog Sparky get flattened by a car. Burton feels the kid's horror, but also shares his morbid curiosity, the kind that makes you want to poke a carcass with a stick. Years later, that fascination remains, and finds full expression in this feature-length animated remake of the original short.
>> READ: "Puppy love: Tim Burton's first Frankenweenie" by Peter Keough <<
Like the first movie, the new film opens with Victor's homemade horror movie, "Monsters from Long Ago," starring Sparky as a stegosaurus. He's a loyal, smart, and talented pooch, but about 10 minutes into Frankenweenie, he's dead. Victor grieves . . . until his science teacher gives him an idea.
Extended to feature length, the premise doesn't thin out but gains substance and momentum. It gives Burton space to extend beyond the relatively normal Frankenstein family to the oddballs in the neighborhood, and he puts together a rogues' gallery worthy of Charles Addams, brought to life by the primordial stop-motion animation, shot in the inky black-and-white of Universal horror movies of the '30s.
Among the standouts in that bunch are Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau of Ed Wood), the science teacher, who looks like Vincent Price and sounds like Bela Lugosi. His lesson on lightning is a tour de force. Then there's the cute hunchbacked boy Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer), with a voice somewhere between the cherubic and demonic. But all the kids are great — endearing freaks vaguely reminiscent of every horror movie you've ever seen.
There are quibbles. The animals aren't lovable. Sparky looks like a withered yam and his poodle bride Persephone (shades of Hades) is no Elsa Lanchester. The cat, Mr. Whiskers, with his perpetual look of startled disapproval, steals the few scenes he's in.
As for death, it seems as much a curiosity as a tragedy, something a boy or girl can handle with a bunch of gizmos and a bolt of lightning. Or a movie camera, as Burton demonstrates once again.
Want more movie news? Read Peter Keough's Film blog at thePhoenix.com/outsidetheframe