The boy-and-his-dog story has never been done quite like “Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton’s unabashedly self-referential paean to early horror films and a vintage animation style.
Burton resurrects stop-motion animation and a dead dog in a stunning 3-D black-and-white reworking of his 1984 live action short of the same name. The puppet-like effect of stop-motion animation, which dates back to 1897, is the result of a painstaking process: shooting a single frame of a three-dimensional object manipulated one shot at a time to create the illusion of movement. It’s no surprise, then, that “Frankenweenie” was decades in the making.
Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a bright and inventive school-age boy living in a small, Dutch-influenced town whose grownup inhabitants are steadfast in their fear of the unknown. Victor’s only friend is a terribly ugly dog named Sparky, though he has one myotic eye on his neighbor and classmate, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder). After Victor’s father agrees to sign his science fair permission slip only if he signs up to play baseball, Sparky tags along for a game that ends in tragedy when the dog chases a ball into the street.
Victor is devastated until his science teacher re-animates a dead frog in a class demonstration, inspiring the boy to channel Dr. Frankenstein during an electrical storm. The experiment works, and Victor joyously reunites with a stitched-up Sparky, alive and well if a bit worse for wear. Naturally, Victor is unable to keep Sparky’s resurrection a secret for long, and soon his fellow science fair hopefuls are eager to test Victor’s experiment on their own lost pets.
But the boys’ reckless ambition far exceeds their competence, and before long the town of New Holland is under siege by the monsters they create. Here, Burton's love affair with early black-and-white "creature features" is on full display. The masterfully chaotic climax, which takes place during a bizarro town fair, forces Victor and co. to make quick decisions about where their loyalties lie.
Odes to Mary Shelley and "Godzilla" notwithstanding, "Frankenweenie" is signature Burton above all. Whether it’s bat-shaped kites or a dog’s tombstone in the form of a fire hydrant, his details are awe-inspiring in their novelty but so spot-on that one can’t help but wonder why real life shouldn't look a little more like his world. Burton's imaginarium is macabre without being too sinister; the atmosphere is more fun house than haunted house. Almost every character, man and beast alike, is given enormous eyes with tiny specks of constricted pupils -- an ingenious stylistic choice signaling the hybrid themes of fright and wonder that drive this spooky but family-friendly fare.
“Frankenweenie” is a gorgeous nothing of a movie, and it will be remembered more for its achievements in animation than its emotional impact: A peculiar accomplishment for a story that purports to go for the lowest hanging sentimental fruit. The residents of New Holland are superbly and lovingly rendered, but we know and understand the characters only as well as we can see them. And while it might be a bit unfair to accuse “Frankenweenie” of being predictable, the only real surprise is Burton’s decision not to pursue a hinted-upon dramatic thread that would have given the film more narrative heft (though perhaps a bit too much sadness.)
Still, Burton’s tender visual treatment of the dead animals reveals the depths of his compassion, last mined this thoroughly in “Edward Scissorhands.” Sparky the dog, whose face is one only a misfit science nerd could love, is handled in death with utmost honor and care by both the film's director and its mourning owner -- and it feels like a gesture of kindness for the audience as well.
It’s clear that children are Burton’s primary target audience, but it’s unclear what message he intends to send: Is death to be feared or embraced or rejected altogether? It’s easy to imagine that after seeing “Frankenweenie,” a young and sensitive child might be convinced that her dog is still dead because she didn’t love him enough. For this and more, parents are strongly cautioned to keep an eye on Buddy’s final resting place in the backyard.