Tim Burton would probably never be interested in a standard boy-and-his-dog tale, but Frankenweenie seems to fit his twisted sensibilities just fine.
Burton’s latest foray into animation as a director (following Corpse Bride in 2005) is a feature-length adaptation of his 1984 live-action short film that helped launch his career. Since the original was never released in theaters, perhaps it’s been a longtime goal for Burton to, ahem, revive the idea of a feature.
Regardless, he uses his preferred stop-motion technique, this time in black and white and in 3D, to create a unique visual texture that enhances a charming coming-of-age saga with the filmmaker’s expected touches of fright amid the funny.
The film follows Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a prepubescent loner — with the last name Frankenstein — who is devastated after the tragic death of his beloved dog, Sparky. So he decides to bring him back to life by way of a science experiment, suggested by his eccentric science teacher (Martin Landau) involving electrodes and a lightning storm.
After his attempts to hide Sparky’s reappearance from his friends and parents are unsuccessful, Victor shares the secret with his friend Edgar (Atticus Shaffer). But word eventually gets out to his classmates, who try similar schemes of their own with terrifying consequences for the entire town.
The story is modest, expanded to feature length by screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) from Burton’s original idea. Narratively, it gets off to a slow start, eventually gaining traction with the introduction of some amusing periphery characters before settling for a silly and overwrought climax. Visually, the film makes clever use of shadows and physical character exaggerations.
The film likely will be targeted at family audiences, although it might be best appreciated more by animation buffs (like Burton himself) than children. Adults can savor the quirky voice cast — which includes multiple roles for Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short — and homages to classic horror films from the 1930s. Kids might identify with Victor’s attachment to his canine companion, or the cautionary tale that results from it.
Frankenweenie doesn’t produce many big laughs or big scares, but it does defy mainstream conventions and its heartwarming story feels both classic and cutting-edge.
Rated PG, 87 minutes.