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'Frankenweenie' stitched too loosely

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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Tim Burton has produced or directed nine feature films in which characters literally or metaphorically come back from the dead. His new “Frankenweenie” is an expanded remake of the 1984 short of that name, which earned him the right to begin his feature career with “Beetlejuice.”

So does he have anything left to say about this topic? Well, yes and no.

Nothing in the longer “Frankenweenie” is new. Burton and writer John August recycle the director’s familiar themes: A loner child misunderstood by parents, an extraordinary boy whose odd talents frighten small minds, a depiction of bland suburbia.

Scenes and characters refer endlessly (though often wittily) to more than two dozen horror movies, from the original 1931 “Frankenstein” to the 1969 “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” Virtually every memorable image in the film is dug up from Burton’s memory or pop culture. So the central and potentially touching story of a boy and his dead dog keeps vanishing from view.

The boy is Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), whose pal gets hit by a car. His science teacher (the great Martin Landau, whose character looks like Vincent Price) has shown the class that electricity moves the dead legs of a frog, so Victor hooks Sparky up to cables and sets a kite aloft to catch lightning. When students learn of his success in re-animation, they emulate him with their own dead pets, but with catastrophic results.

The way in which Burton connects his homage is novel, and there’s plenty of pleasure in playing Spot the Reference. One of Victor’s classmates (the spooky Atticus Shaffer) looks and sounds like every Igor sent to fetch a graveyard brain. Another boy looms and staggers like Boris Karloff (and, aptly, briefly becomes a mummy); a third resembles pudgy Pugsley from Charles Addams’ original cartoons.

But Burton’s cleverness hides a lack of purpose. Victor lives next to an older girl, Elsa Van Helsing. That’d be Elsa like Lanchester, who played the monster’s intended in “Bride of Frankenstein,” and Von Helsing like the Dracula-killer. The girl’s poodle even has a streak of gray in its hair to mimic Lanchester’s character in “Bride.” But so what? This high schooler isn’t interesting, important to the plot or individualized. (Winona Ryder is wasted yet again.)

Sequences feel padded within themselves and when they’re strung together. We never even have a true sense of place: The TV sets, cars and houses say 1950s, but the kids talk about computer simulation (which didn’t exist then), and an adult complains because Pluto is no longer considered a planet. (That downgrade came in 2006.)

“Human” puppets used for the stop-motion animation remain eerily bland, with pinched triangular noses and minuscule pupils swimming in enormous eyes. The most expressive character is Sparky, with his head tapering like a giant carrot and his tail like a waggable sausage. He may go literally to pieces when the excitement gets too intense, but he’s always endearing.

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