Nothing much changes in the world of Tim Burton. With Frankenweenie he presents yet another gothic tale set in a suburban American town in which quirky characters traverse the line between life and death to the familiar strains of a Danny Elfman score. It's a formula that works for the director, and if it ain't broke why fix it?
Given his gothic sensibilities it was only a matter of time before Burton, inset, turned his hand to one of the genre's classic texts and now he has reconfigured Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a children's animation. The director came up with the idea in 1984, getting as far as making drawings of his imagined characters before budgetary constraints forced him to turn his musings into a live-action short. Having since made two other Academy Award- nominated, stop-motion feature films, A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, he finally gets to fulfil his dream and, shot in black and white, it looks fabulous.
The vagaries of time have made his spin on the tale even more pertinent. In making a dog rather than a human his subject, Burton gives a contemporary twist to the story and weaves in elements of the cloning debate. The parents of Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) are worried that their son has no friends except his dog and want to encourage him to take an interest in things other than science. When Victor's father (Martin Short) persuades him to try his hand at baseball, his life is changed for ever when his dog Sparky is killed chasing the ball.
Fortunately his school's new science teacher, an eccentric Eastern European called Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), gives a brilliant lecture about lightning and how electricity can be used to reanimate dead objects. Mr Rzykruski is Burton's best character for many a movie; his discussions with Victor about the moral conundrums faced by scientists are pure Albert Einstein, and his musings on the lack of desire shown by American kids to become scientists are ever quotable: "In my country even my plumber wins Nobel Prize."
References to horror films populate the movie, right down to Shelley appearing as the name on a tombstone. As with Pixar, a failure to get the references will not diminish enjoyment. Yet Frankenweenie also suffers from Burton's pitfalls. The characters are stereotypes that stick to their guns and have small arcs; fat and ugly characters are typically up to no good; and it's long since entered the public consciousness that geeks are cool. Burton seems stuck fighting a battle that has already been won and it's getting a tad predictable. It would be nice to see the director take himself outside his comfort zone. As Mr Rzykruski posits: 'It's OK to fail.'