With Frankenweenie, filmmaker Tim Burton returns to an old source for inspiration: his 1984 live-action short of the same name, which starred The Neverending Story‘s Barret Oliver as a preteen scientist who uses his considerable gifts to resurrect his dead dog, Sparky.  In its abbreviated form (the short runs about thirty minutes long), the 1984 Frankenweenie offered viewers a perfect encapsulation of Tim Burton-at-his-best.  It’s sweet without being cloying, funny without being goofy, and strange without being off-putting.  All of that is a roundabout way of saying that Frankenweenie wasn’t exactly crying out for a remake.

However, while that movie didn’t need a redo, Tim Burton’s career certainly did.  Since 2003’s lovely Big Fish, Burton has struggled to capture the magic that made Frankenweenie, among others, so enchanting.  At his best, we got the grim and gory Sweeney Todd, and at his worst, we got useless remakes/reboots (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Dark Shadows), misguided passion projects (The Corpse Bride), and a staggeringly leaden sequel (Alice in Wonderland, which is to the original Disney property what Hook was to Peter Pan).  Burton needed a resurrection himself, so it’s almost fitting that he returned to the first time he brought the dead back to life, cinematically speaking.

And if nothing else, this new Frankenweenie scores points for not tarnishing the memory of the original version.  Burton has translated the live-action thrills of that earlier take into stop-motion animation, and the results are as visually stunning as his beloved The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Working in lustrous black-and-white with his longtime production designer Rich Heinrichs (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow), Burton has created a tactile, stylized version of his childhood Burbank community.  It’s all tract-level housing and perfectly manicured lawns, with hulking sedans straights from the 1950s, and if the landscape seems eerily similar to the suburban hell Burton realized in Edward Scissorhands, that isn’t an accident.  Both films deal with insular communities that frown upon imagination so much that the presence of genuine whimsy splits them in twain.

Now, this new Frankenweenie isn’t as good as Edward Scissorhands (it lacks the 1991 fantasy’s satirical edge and brilliant Johnny Depp performance), but it’s to Burton’s credit that one can make the comparison at all.  Frankenweenie is Burton’s best film since Big Fish; you can like this one without qualifiers.  In trying to revitalize a past glory, Burton captures something deeply personal and wise.  Just as Big Fish saw him struggling with the passing of his own father, Frankenweenie sees him reflecting on his outsider status.  His young hero, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), is a bright kid who struggles to find acceptance in a world that just doesn’t value the same things he does.  His classmates think he’s a geek for liking science so much, his parents (“SCTV” veterans Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) wish he’d spend more time playing sports than experimenting in the attic and making horror movies, and you can sense Burton’s own frustrations bubbling to the surface, that a kind and smart kid such as Victor – and as Burton was, too – might find himself an outsider simply because everyone around him is so close-minded.

Burton and his screenwriter John August (who also penned Big Fish, natch) set up this dilemma with economy; in a few minutes, we sense Victor’s alienation, and we understand why his closest relationship is with Sparky.  The dog loves him unconditionally, as dogs are wont to do, which makes the accident that claims Sparky’s life all the more wrenching.  Even if we know where things are heading – that Victor will successfully reanimate his pal – Burton still lingers on the moments after the accident.  It’s the most genuine infusion of emotion he’s allowed in one of his movies for a very long time.

The first hour of Frankenweenie is definitely the most moving section, as Victor loses and then regains Sparky, and I found this section to be as good as anything Burton has done.  Sparky is such a wonderful character (Burton’s animators give this stop-motion maquette a whole spectrum of feeling), and he isn’t the only one: Short gives life to two additional characters – the evil Mayor Bergermeister and Victor’s Boris Karloff-inspired rival Nassor – Winona Ryder returns to the Tim Burton-universe as the very Lydia Deetz-like Elsa van Helsing, and Martin Landau nearly walks off with the picture as Victor’s overzealous science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (who looks like Vincent Price and whose name sounds like “Rice Krispies”).  It’s an engaging meld of the offbeat and the heartfelt, and I would have been content just hanging out with these misfits.

But Burton shifts gears in the last half hour, and what started as a gentle comedy becomes a full-fledged monster movie.  On one hand, this part robs Frankenweenie of some of its delicacy, but on the other, Burton’s action-movie chops are so entertaining that you almost don’t mind the more rote bombast.  He turns Sparky into a canine avenger, and he and Victor find themselves fighting monsters that bear striking resemblances to Godzilla, The Mummy, and Joe Dante’s Gremlins.  You should be able to predict this one’s happy ending from a mile away, but the path there is so satisfying that you probably won’t care.

Ultimately, Frankenweenie works because Burton cares for it as much as Victor cares for Sparky.  That heart smoothes out the tiny missteps along the way and makes for one of 2012’s most enjoyable animated features.  Welcome back, Tim Burton.

Disney’s Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack looks wonderful.  The monochrome aesthetics actually benefit the 3D effect, as there’s very little loss of color/brightness definition, and the images pop with little strobing or aliasing effects.  But the 2D also provides excellent contrast and clarity, especially paired alongside the disc’s 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Supplements are limited but of a high caliber.  We get two informative behind-the-scenes featurettes (“Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life” and “Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit”) that focus on the stop-motion-animation process; the Plain White T’s “Pet Cemetery” music video; and, best of all, two more Frankenweenie shorts: the 1984 original feature and a new animated piece, “Captain Sparky Vs. The Flying Saucers.”

Frankenweenie shows that Tim Burton hasn’t lost it; parts of it are as good as anything he’s ever done.

Frankenweenie is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: FRANKENWEENIE Is Tim Burton's Best Film Since 2003's BIG FISH