I had a thing for Apple Jacks cereal when I was a kid. Each piece was dotted with jagged little cinnamon-flavored sugar shards. They'd rip up your mouth almost as effectively as Cap'n Crunch. Eating them was an adventure. Later in their evolution, the taste changed a bit (that stupid corn syrup). Half of them turned green. And the final step in the divorce was a smoothing process, a softening down of the rough bits. Nevermore shall Apple Jacks possess the power to damage your hard palate and gums, but eating them is a mental exercise, forcing you to leap the chasm between your tongue's sense memory and their new, improved, whatever-it-is. You keep waiting for them to pull a Pepsi Throwback and market an old-school version for adults who never got over it. And you keep waiting.
Tim Burton fans know this feeling. We continue to buy it, hoping for more and getting less. We search his recent films for evidence of the gentle anarchy implied in early, freaks-win-at-life pleasures like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood and what we mostly get now is visuals. Really cool visuals, of course, but that's it. Gone is... something... an underdog devotion to making a mark, maybe, a level of emotional care that's hard to find in a tentpole "property" like Dark Shadows, a focus on telling one strong story instead of two or three weak ones. It's been replaced with too much hand-wringing about all those Big Fish father issues, too much Johnny Depp unleashed, too much stuff and not enough nerve.
And now we get Burton back. This is the stop-motion, feature-length expansion of his own 1984 short film Frankenweenie, the Frankenstein story involving a re-animated doggie and the town that misunderstands him to the brink of tragedy. Young Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan) loses his beloved mutt Sparky and, like the well-meaning, brainiac science nerd that he is -- with the inspiration of a Vincent Price-like teacher named Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) to guide him -- he harnesses the power of lightning to jump-start the dead animal into the realm of the undead. Cue fearful, ignorant townspeople, power gone mad and the ignition of real monsters bent on destruction.
It's a jumble of Burton's greatest hits, lovingly arranged like he cares again, a personal reboot for kids who weren't around for his own first wave. But when that audience grows up, they'll understand him referencing Scissorhands' blunted suburban hyper-normalcy as well as Price's creepy coolness, Lisa Marie's hair in Mars Attacks (in turn lifted from Bride of Frankenstein, of course), Ed Wood's black and white garden of self-actualized strangeness, Hammer horror, and the ghost of Winona Ryder's goth past. Adults whose childhoods were spent absorbing Rankin-Bass stop-motion TV specials will feel jolts of Rudolph recognition over Sparky's prominent nose, wholesale character appropriation from Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town and, as if the technically advanced figuration of Coraline and ParaNorman never existed, a resolute vote for those vintage specials' less-than-silky-smooth aesthetic.
These parts add up to the kind of experience fans have been wanting from Burton for more than awhile now -- an oddball story on the weirdo setting that doesn't suffocate itself with heartfelt hot air. For monster-loving kids, it's already been a Great Pumpkin-style year of getting everything they want for Halloween, with this movie serving as a bridge between Hotel Transylvania's mission to entertain the very young and ParaNorman's older-kid-ready angst and darkness, the kind of film you love into adulthood. And for adults who've already pledged their Burton allegiance, it's a welcome return to form. You can taste those jagged little bits again.