Frankenweenie is the apotheosis of goth director Tim Burton's oeuvre: artistic yet sterile, incredibly meticulous and totally misbegotten.
It's a far more elaborate animated remake of the live-action short that first gained Burton attention back in 1984.
An isolated adolescent named Victor Frankenstein, living in the wasteland of suburbia, builds a makeshift lab in the attic of his parents' house to shock back to life his beloved pet, Sparky.
The bolt-necked dog, its skin stitched together like a crooked quilt, creates havoc in the neighborhood. And when Victor's spooky classmates duplicate his experiment with other animal cadavers dug up at the pet cemetery, the town is overrun.
There was a sweetness to the original, in which Victor was played by adorable child star Barret Oliver (The NeverEnding Story). In Burton's fully mature vision, the boy (voiced by Charlie St. Cloud's Charlie Tahan) is a freakishly attenuated figure with giant ghoulish eyes rimmed with black.
The closest thing to a heroic character in Frankenweenie is Mr. Rzykruski, a substitute science teacher who looks like Vincent Price with three times too many teeth and who sounds like a Hungarian count. (He's voiced by Martin Landau. Others in the cast include Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara, and Winona Ryder.)
There are two remarkable aspects to this feature. Its 3-D effects are almost excessively realistic. When Victor starts shoveling in the graveyard, you can practically feel the dirt caking to your shoes.
Above all else, Frankenweenie is a devoted homage to old black-and-white horror films, particularly and most pointedly to James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the monster.
You can see why such a scrupulous tribute would have impressed the veteran filmmakers at the Disney Studio nearly 30 years ago. But who did Burton have in mind - besides himself - when he fashioned this exhaustive animated remake?
Kids won't get the references, and they won't get the jokes. Adults, other than film geeks, won't have the patience.
It's not so much a miscalculation of his audience by Burton as it is a disregard. What lingers after Frankenweenie, far more than its stunning technique, is a sad suggestion of solipsism.
Frankenweenie ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Tim Burton. Voices by Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, and Martin Landau. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (scary images)
Playing at: area theatersEndText