The new feature-length Frankenweenie brings Burton full circle, though this isn't likely to be his cinematic swan song. Nor should it be, because returning to his early work and playing with puppets has brought back something that his last couple of films have missed: a spark of life.
That's not to say it's a perfect movie. If you've seen the original short, it's all still here, with nothing different about the scenes except voice work (original star Barrett Oliver is waaay too old) and puppets in place of the actors. But screenwriter John August struggles cleverly to expand the script with a fun secondary plot that ultimately could have still happened in the original, we just didn't see it.
It still has the pacing of a short, with not much lingering on plot points as it gets to the next one. August adds a theme, though, definitely (and welcomely) underscoring the idea that science and knowledge are worthy pursuits. Yet that doesn't quite add up when a middle school boy has figured out how to destroy the barrier between life and death.
Martin Landau voices that thematic underscore, new science teacher Mr. Ryzkruzki. Designed to evoke Burton's hero Vincent Price, the science teacher instigates a school science fair that sets the middle school buzzing with possibilities. But young Victor (Charlie Tahan) doesn't care about prizes; he just wants to bring his beloved dog Sparky back from the grave.
The short rushed to a denoument that included the windmill from The Bride of Frankenstein. Then it was on a miniature golf course. Now August has set the story in a town called New Holland, which has dark and mysterious origins that never develop, but at least justify a windmill.
To extend, Burton and August add Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer), a hunch-backed snaggle-toothed schoolboy with a disturbing resemblance to Dwight Frye. Edgar discovers Sparky, blackmailing Victor into repeating the experiment.
Eventually the rest of Victor's classmates get in on the act, revealing themselves to be analogues to iconic horror figures. That makes for a fun sequence and a cool "my first horror film" for younger audiences unfamiliar with the history of movie monsters.
In addition to returning to a classic style of animation, Burton lets his adult voice actors stretch. Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara (Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas) remind audiences that they started out as incredible sketch actors, each voicing – unrecognizably – at least three characters a piece.
The child actors all have fun with their roles, though Victor's potential soul mate/nemesis Elsa Van Helsing actually gets channeled through Winona Ryder. After so many collaborations with Johnny Depp, it's nice for Burton to nod to two of the women who played a part in his early successes. And gasp! No Helena Bonham-Carter or Depp in this one!
Maybe finally getting to do this film in as indulgent a manner as possible will have purged some demons from Burton. It will certainly introduce a lot of kids to his work. Let's see if he can move forward and add a couple of new themes to his pallet. Going back to the beginning can help him grow.