The barking dead

Tim Burton finally makes a film that lives up to his reputation.

Oh, irony of ironies. In 1984, Disney fired Tim Burton for making a short film about a boy who reanimates his dog after it is run over. The studio thought the material too dark for children. Almost 30 years later, Walt Disney proudly presents Frankenweenie, a feature film in 3D and black and white, based on that short film.

The idea of what's acceptable for children has changed a lot in that time, even at Disney. The interesting question is whether Burton has also changed. In some ways, not all of them positive, I think not. He remains a popular filmmaker with more style than substance. Look deeply and you find nothing very deep to look at.

His whole career is based on the traumas and obsessions he felt as an introspective child growing up in Burbank, California, in the early 1960s. His ''dark and quirky imagination'', as it is always described, remains stunted, with limited signs of intellectual or dramatic growth. His most personal films, most of them made early in his career (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), had a stronger sense of emotional truth than his recent work. His obsession with death once had some power, but it has long since become a trademark, lacquered with fake cobwebs. Burton's most recent live-action film, Dark Shadows, was lazy and embarrassing.

Gorgeously gothic ... homage to ye olde horror.
Gorgeously gothic ... homage to ye olde horror. 

That's why Frankenweenie is refreshing. It takes him back to the things that moved him as a child: the friendship with his dog and the horror movies he devoured on television, especially those that had Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and the English Hammer Horror label on them. This film has the benefit of emotional memory, at least.

The technique is also the one he started with as a teenager, stop-motion animation. He has done it superbly before, most recently in Corpse Bride, but says Frankenweenie is an attempt to undo some of the technical perfection of that film. Frankenweenie is more handmade, perhaps inspired by the example of Aardman Animations in Bristol, home of Wallace & Gromit. Getting his hands dirty usually makes for a better film with Burton, who co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator, John August. Making it in black and white and 3D has added more than a technical challenge. The monochrome works as part of the film's homage to ye olde horror, and especially the classic 1931 Frankenstein with Boris Karloff.

If the inspiration is partly English, the meaning and themes are distinctly American. Burton continues to be obsessed with American suburbia as both heartland and hell-mouth. The film is set in a small, oppressive, newly minted community known as New Holland. I guess no one told him that was one of the early names for Australia.

The film is gorgeously gothic in style, as you would expect. Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is an only child with a strong scientific bent. He has dark rings around his eyes and an attic full of inventions and contraptions. Victor's parents (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) are caring but remote, a 1950s couple interested in home appliances, neatness and order. Victor gets much more love from his charming and boundlessly energetic dog Sparky, who looks a bit like a bull terrier. The dog is the movie's best work, even after he has been patched back together with string and bolts. His dogginess is beautifully rendered, even as bits of him keep falling off.

The neighbourhood is an architecturally perfect rendition of 1950s Burbank, populated by cartoon children with bug eyes and weird haircuts - like the Munsters meeting American modernism. Frankenweenie is a film about misfits, but the misfits are the norm, at least among the children. The adults are driven towards conformity. Under the radar, the children experiment wildly, influenced by a wacky and inspiring science teacher, Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau). When Sparky runs under a car trying to retrieve a baseball hit by Victor, Mr Rzykruski's recent lesson about electricity gives Victor a crazy idea.

Burton has been saying in interviews that the film is his way of talking about death to younger audiences, breaking a taboo that has become increasingly rigid. I guess that is true, but it's hardly new in his work, nor does he explore the idea in any depth. Sparky dies, then Sparky lives with the help of 10,000 volts of lightning. Rather than introducing kids to the concept of death, it might be said to be introducing them to the idea that your loved ones never really die, if they can be brought back from the other side with a kite flown in a storm. Don't try this at home, kids.

The film satisfies mostly as a comedy, set in Tim Burton's memory. There is affection in his characterisation of the other kids, the antics of the dog, the leering foreignness of Martin Landau's European teacher. If all of Burton's work were this personal, he would deserve the reputation he already enjoys.