Strip all the loving references to classic horror movies out of Tim Burton’s stop-motion feature Frankenweenie, and there wouldn’t be much left to it—possibly not much more than the 30-minute live-action short that was the story’s first incarnation, back in 1984. The references extend from the 1931 Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein to 1965’s Gamera to Burton’s past work, and they invade every aspect of the film: the black-and-white color palette, character designs, scenes, shot setups, gags, dialogue, casting, and even a sequence where the protagonist’s parents watch the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee feature Horror Of Dracula on TV. Every time a new homage pops up, those in the know are likely to smile with fond recognition, even admiration. But while Frankenweenie is pleasant enough as a curated tour through horror’s past, it doesn’t add much to its present.
Like Burton’s original short, the new animated Frankenweenie starts with a crude science-fiction film-within-a-film made by New Holland resident Victor Frankenstein, a lonely, slightly odd kid obsessed with moviemaking and his pet dog/best friend Sparky. When Sparky is struck and killed by a car, Victor (Charlie Tahan) is inconsolable, until a science-class lesson about electricity’s effect on dead nerves and muscles sends him scurrying back to his workspace to expose Sparky’s corpse to lightning. Soon, the dog is scampering around again, with giant bolts in his neck and crude stitching just barely (and occasionally not) holding his body together. In the original short, his transformation into a canine Frankenstein’s monster mostly leads to shock and disapproval from easily alarmed neighbors. The feature needs more action and more runtime, so it adds a plot where a handful of other oddball kids, all eager to win first prize at New Holland’s science fair, steal Victor’s technology and perform their own ill-advised animal-resurrection experiments.
There’s some enjoyable mayhem in the results of those experiments, but it’s a long time coming, and it follows an hour of low-key character interaction and story business that proceeds at a moderate, restrained pace and volume, as if further aping early cinema rather than reaching for the zippy speed of more modern films. Burton occasionally gets some mild goofery into the subdued extended setup, as when he introduces all his grim, morbid kids in one science-class scene presided over by a Vincent Price caricature voiced by Martin Landau. And a later scene, where that same caricature upbraids a room full of science-fearing parents for their ignorance, has some edge in a country still having state-by-state debates about whether and to what degree religion should trump scientific theory in schools.
But the film’s pro-science stance is just one of many ideas that only persists for a scene or two, and never develops into anything more thematic or elaborate. Much like the business involving a weird girl (one of three characters voiced by Catherine O’Hara) with a creepy cat who prognosticates via poop, or Victor’s filmmaking fetish, or the question about why New Holland residents are struck by lightning so often, it’s an idea in search of significance, continuity, or payoffs. Similarly, most of the characters—including Victor’s wan sort-of love interest, Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder)—are underdeveloped conduits for visual gags. They’re loving callbacks rather than the wink-wink visual puns of, say, the Shrek movies, but they’re no substitute for a story with weight or a sense of significance.
And while the stop-motion is fluid and elaborately wrought, the puppets are curiously inexpressive, with fixed faces and huge, unblinking eyes that play well comedically, but rarely convey a sense of emotion or involvement. Only Sparky himself—whose design seems to come from the protagonist of Brad Bird’s “Family Dog,” in yet another reference—is fully emotive. Which leaves Frankenweenie in a strange place, where the director seems to care more about past films than his cast cares about their present. It’s a charming enough set of allusions, but for more than half its length, it doesn’t particularly feel like a film itself.