Victor Frankenstein, protagonist of Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated “Frankenweenie,” is an aspiring filmmaker and scientist still in elementary school, no doubt a child prodigy. But Victor never thinks of what glorious career and achievements might await him in the future—he only has eyes for his beloved bull terrier and very best friend in the world, also the star of all his home movies, Sparky.
Victor has no friends outside of Sparky, despite the fact that all the kids in his suburban hometown of New Holland are as weird or weirder than him.
Many Burton fans will be happy to recognize New Holland as essentially the same small town where his “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) was set, although in this case the town has a Dutch theme going and is mysteriously cursed with incessant thunderstorms.
“Frankenweenie” is also reminiscent of “Edward Scissorhands” thematically and tonally. This is Burton attempting to return to a place much earlier in his career. And it’s thankfully an assured return, “Frankenweenie” turning out to be both genuinely strange and genuinely moving.
This film is, in fact, a remake of a short film Burton did for Disney in 1984—a film that Disney (also distributor of the new version) famously shelved. “Frankenweenie” also marks a return to Burton’s stop-action work, which has previously produced “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “Corpse Bride” (2005).
Life changes dramatically for Victor and Sparky one day when the boy hits his first home run. Sparky loyally rushes to catch the ball in his mouth and is promptly run over by a car and killed.
Burton minimizes the trauma in what could have been a very traumatic scene for children—this is Disney, after all—never revealing the dog’s broken body.
While Victor’s parents share the regular platitudes with him about Sparky living forever in his heart, these do nothing to assuage the boy’s all-encompassing grief. Life’s over for Victor; it left with Sparky.
But when Victor sees a dead frog seemingly revived in science class, he decides to harness the power of lightning to resurrect his Sparky. It’s the kind of Gothic setpiece Burton loves to do, and this one’s among his most gleeful.
With his dog happily back in action, his personality intact, Victor must figure out how to keep his secret a secret. This naturally proves impossible.
Sparky, who now runs on electricity and whose body’s sewn and bolted together (his tail and ears sometimes falling off), is constantly getting out, winding up in trouble, and being spotted by unsympathetic neighbors—especially the other kids.
All the youngsters in town are focused on winning a science fair. They now fear Victor will triumph, with Sparky as his winning experiment.
Soon everyone’s raiding the pet cemetery and bringing back to life a host of animals—even a bag of sea monkeys—that turn into monsters and threaten to tear apart New Holland’s Dutch Day celebration. A pet turtle who becomes Godzilla-worthy is one of Burton’s niftiest inventions here.
The concise storytelling evident in the well-paced “Frankenweenie” has often been lacking in Burton’s recent projects, such as “Dark Shadows” (2012). The screenplay by Burton and John August has several outré and clever bits, including a couple of barbed mini-lectures from a misunderstood science teacher (a tribute to Vincent Price) and an odd pep talk on adult compromise (from the travel agent’s point of view) from Victor’s father. There are a couple of holes in the story, but at least Burton and August keep things moving.
Sparky’s a real charmer: a freaky but goodhearted little dog in an unwelcoming world. He turns out to be quite heroic when the appropriate time comes, converting his naysayers into believers. Another keeper here is Mr. Whiskers, a creepy, psychic kitty who eventually becomes quite the beast.
While it seemed like a good idea to try doing a black-and-white, stop-motion film in IMAX 3D—the first of its kind—the 3D in “Frankenweenie” adds little to the already solid production. Burton’s ample attention to detail doesn’t need 3D to pull us into the world of “Frankenweenie.”
In combining a boy-and-his-dog romance with a sincere homage to “Frankenstein” (1931) and all the horror films he loved as a child, Burton has come up with his most satisfying entertainment in years. It’s a relief to see him having this much fun again.