The traditional tale of a boy and his dog gets charmingly warped treatment in “Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton’s latest spooky-fun exercise in animation and reanimation. A black-and-white stop-motion toon that pays loving tribute to Hollywood creature features of yesteryear, this beautifully designed canine-resurrection saga feels, somewhat fittingly, stitched together from stray narrative parts, but nonetheless evinces a level of discipline and artistic coherence missing from the director’s recent live-action efforts. Fusing gentle, sentimental emotions and a classically Burtonian obsession with all things morbid and macabre, Disney’s Oct. 5 release should fetch lively returns from devotees and general audiences of all ages.
Though decisively superior to “Dark Shadows,” the year’s other Burton-directed release, “Frankenweenie” merits stronger comparisons with Focus/Laika’s recent “ParaNorman,” another stop-motion spookfest centered around a young boy’s adventures with the undead. The protagonist here is Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who lives with his doting parents (Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short) and his faithful bull terrier, Sparky, in the Dutch-influenced 1970s town of New Holland. Yet Victor might be described more correctly as a resident of Burtonville, a now-universally recognized township where a spirit of deadpan whimsy prevails and even minor characters have been shaped to resemble Igor or Frankenstein’s monster.
A shy, science-minded kid, Victor spends most of his time cooking up weird experiments in his attic laboratory and casting Sparky as the star of his homemade monster movies, one of which is amusingly highlighted early on. But when Sparky chases a ball into the street and meets a tragic end, the boy’s grief is soon overshadowed by a thrill of dark possibility: Absorbing the lessons of his gravely eccentric, Vincent Price-inspired science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (wonderfully voiced with an Eastern European accent by Martin Landau), Victor sets out to bring the dog back to life. A pet-cemetery raid and a few lightning bolts later, Sparky lives — a bit more decomposed and apt to shed body parts than usual, but otherwise still the same sweet, lovable, not terribly bright pooch.
At this juncture, John August’s screenplay begins to elaborate on the story template provided by Burton’s 1984 short film, also titled “Frankenweenie.” With boy and dog supplying little in the way of dramatic conflict, the story borrows a page from “Re-Animator,” hinging on the nefarious activities of Victor’s classmates — including the loathsome Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) and the entrancing Weird Girl (O’Hara again) — and their somewhat ill-motivated determination to steal this confounding new technology. Tucked into the proceedings are some intriguing ideas about the beauty and mystery of science, and the ways it can be abused or misunderstood by the small-minded. Yet whether or not it turns moppets into biochemistry fiends, the film tilts firmly in the direction of fantasy; any science here is strictly, and playfully, of the mad variety.
As demonstrated by “Corpse Bride” and the Henry Selick-directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” stop-motion is an ideal medium for realizing Burton’s unique worlds of whimsy. The labor-intensive nature of the process, which in this case involved about 33 animators working to produce five seconds of film per week apiece, imposes a necessary degree of focus and pre-planning in the story department — a useful constraint for a filmmaker whose visual imagination sometimes overwhelms his narrative sense.
Still, a certain inertia persists in the storytelling here, primarily in the film’s patched-together midsection. The characters, including Victor himself, are not particularly well defined, and once the picture’s twisted premise and playfully grim tone have been established, even its more outlandish formulations are fairly foreseeable. Apart from the simple joy of watching Sparky brought to endearing life (a feat achieved with no fewer than 15 puppets), the pleasures of this willfully derivative movie are not of surprise but recognition — of catching the James Whale reference when a bouffanted poodle gets zapped by lightning, or the Godzilla allusion foreshadowed by the presence of a Japanese kid (James Hiroyuki Liao) in the ensemble.
If these tie-ins aren’t clever enough, Burton loyalists will have fun identifying the numerous echoes of the helmer’s prior work. The flat, suburban landscape of Rick Heinrichs’ production design looks awfully similar to that of “Edward Scissorhands” (likewise modeled on the director’s native Burbank), albeit with the bright colors drained away in favor of a richly expressive monochrome palette whose distinct shadings and textures benefit appreciably from 3D. The black-and-white lensing (by d.p. Peter Sorg) and moviemaking subplot hark back to “Ed Wood,” Burton’s last feature shot sans color; and as a gloomy girl-next-door type, voice thesp Winona Ryder more or less resuscitates Lydia from “Beetlejuice.”
August brings to the material the same earnest, accessible strokes apparent in his previous collaborations with Burton (“Big Fish,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Corpse Bride”), signaled by the emotional flurries in Danny Elfman’s score and the touching if not entirely natural sight of Victor quietly weeping on more than one occasion. Amid the outstanding craft contributions, including seamless vfx shots, topnotch voicework and a refreshingly unobtrusive evocation of mid-’70s America, special mention must be made of the puppeteers at MacKinnon & Saunders, who have a field day cooking up creepy variations on mummies, sea monsters and other horror-movie denizens.