Tim Burton's 'Frankenweenie'
At its core, Frankenweenie is a love story between a boy and his dog.
It is also a beautifully crafted homage to classic horror films, a study of grief and a commentary on the mysteries of science and those who narrow-mindedly fear its advances.
Drawing on director Tim Burton's trademark fascination with the macabre, the tale is leavened with a touching sweetness and sharp wit. He hasn't fused those elements so appealingly since 2005's The Corpse Bride.
In Frankenweenie (* * * ½ out of four; rated PG; opening Friday nationwide), Burton joins forces with co-writer John August, as he has on four previous films. Both the black-and-white palette and the stop-motion animation style, in 3-D, suit the subject matter perfectly. Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a likable loner whose only true pal is his plucky, lovable terrier, Sparky.
Victor lives in the well-ordered city of New Holland (a stand-in for suburban Burbank, Calif., where Burton grew up). He is fascinated by filmmaking and science, but Victor's dad (Martin Short) wants him to spend more time outdoors. The results of that effort lead to Sparky's accidental death.
Devastated when Sparky dies, Victor drags himself to school, where he spends class time sadly doodling images of his beloved dog. When he learns about electricity from his science teacher, the imposing Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau),Victor resolves to harness its powers and re-animate Sparky.
In a scene that directly recalls Frankenstein, he revives the carcass of Sparky, and to his joy, his old friend returns, cheerful as ever. Victor tries to hide his stitched-together creation to no avail. His classmates seek to imitate Victor's efforts, with bizarrely funny, mutated results.
One of the most captivating characters is Mr. Rzykruski, modeled on Vincent Price, the actor whose last role was in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. Landau deftly captures Price's distinctive vocal cadences.
The tale will resonate powerfully with anyone who has loved a dog and suffered its loss. A few scenes may be a bit scary for the youngest audiences, and Victor's act of bringing a beloved pet back to life could require a conversation with children about not trying this at home.
Stop-motion animation is the ideal medium here, bringing puppets to life as it does. Sparky is adorable as a living canine and equally endearing as a stitched and bolted creation. In both forms, he has the same spunky personality and eager-to-please, wide-eyed grin.
Based on Burton's 1984 live-action short of the same name - and incorporating some of the original drawings - Frankenweenie is enlivened with beguiling visuals and captivating action sequences. The science is murky at best, but the underlying themes are profound, and the story is equal parts funny and poignant. It's Burton's most moving film.
While the director's trademark stylistic touches are clearly evident - after his reanimation, Sparky casually sheds body parts rather than fur, and graveyards are a key location - the story has an emotional heft that's unusual for Burton, who has often been more concerned with the eccentric than the heart-stirring.
It has Halloween classic writ large all over it, but Frankenweenie is a family-friendly fantasy that will enthrall audiences any time of year.