“Frankenweenie” is another repackaging of previously used material from Tim Burton, but its dazzling black-and-white stop-motion animation and sweet tone — despite the creepy horror film undertones — wins the day.
This movie is a remake of Burton’s own live-action short film from 1984 that launched his career: misfit boy heartbroken over the death of his dog reanimates the pooch using mad-scientist methods. But Burton and screenwriter John August use this concept merely as a launching pad to deliver an homage to classic horror film tropes, especially the Universal menagerie of creature features.
I really loved how the entire cast of characters, even the supposed “normals” like Victor Frankenstein’s mom and dad, seem a little sinister and hollow around the eyes. Victor himself (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a slightly morose loner who likes to tinker with making movies (stop-motion, of course) and experimenting in his suburban family attic.
Things get especially good when we get to Victor’s classmates, every one of whom looks like they stepped out of a classic horror flick.
There’s the blonde girl with the spaced expression who seems to be straight from “Village of the Damned,” the tall kid with the Frankenstein monster’s shoulders and Peter Lorre’s lisp, and so on.
Best of all is Edgar E. Gore (get it?), a humpbacked kid with a three-tooth overbite from hell.
Deliciously voiced by Atticus Shaffer, Edgar acts as Victor’s toadying sidekick-turned-blackmailer, demanding that Victor teach him the secret to pet resurrection. Of course, he spills the beans to other kids and soon all sorts of terrifying creatures are besieging the town of New Holland.
The inside joke is that, other than Victor, the children aren’t doing this because of their love of knowledge or the desire to get their critter companions back. No, they’re all out to win the prize at the Science Fair.
“They like what science gives them, but not the questions that science asks,” laments Victor’s condescending-but-wise teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who resembles Vincent Price and comes from a vague Eastern European country where, he says, even his plumber has a Nobel Prize.
Victor is the only one with pure motives. He absolutely adores Sparky, a scrappy little mongrel who resembles a Jack Russell Terrier interbred with a throw pillow. Alas, Sparky wanders into traffic and is smushed. When Victor witnesses Mr. Rzykruski use electricity to stimulate the muscles of a dead frog, it’s not long before he’s brought back Sparky in zombie form.
Sparky doesn’t realize he’s undead, though the fact that his tail or ear keeps falling off might serve as a hint. He’s criss-crossed by stitches and has two metal bolts sticking out of his neck — which Victor uses to “recharge” him from time to time — but is more or less the same joyful pup.
The film takes almost an hour to really get going, but by the time the town carnival is being assaulted by giant reptiles and a mummy gerbil, it’s a genuine hoot.
Despite the tame PG rating, I wouldn’t recommend “Frankenweenie” for very small children, who might find the dead pets and scary moments a bit too much.
The great cast is rounded out by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, each of whom voice several characters, and old Burton standby Winona Ryder as the Goth girl next door.
“Frankenweenie” is an amalgam of previous stories and themes Tim Burton has been churning out for nearly three decades now. Even if, like Sparky, it’s not exactly fresh anymore, there’s still some juice in there.