At its core, Frankenweenie is a love story between a boy and his dog.
Itis also a beautifully crafted homage to classic horror films, a studyof grief and a commentary on the mysteries of science and those whonarrow-mindedly fear its advances.
Drawing on director TimBurton's trademark fascination with the macabre, the tale is leavenedwith a touching sweetness and sharp wit. He hasn't fused those elementsso appealingly since 2005's The Corpse Bride.
In Frankenweenie (** * ½ out of four; rated PG; opening Friday nationwide), Burton joinsforces with co-writer John August, as he has on four previous films.Both the black-and-white palette and the stop-motion animation style, in3-D, suit the subject matter perfectly. Victor Frankenstein (voiced byCharlie Tahan) is a likable loner whose only true pal is his plucky,lovable terrier, Sparky.
Victorlives in the well-ordered city of New Holland (a stand-in for suburbanBurbank, Calif., where Burton grew up). He is fascinated by filmmakingand science, but Victor's dad (Martin Short) wants him to spend moretime outdoors. The results of that effort lead to Sparky's accidentaldeath.
Devastated when Sparky dies, Victor drags himself toschool, where he spends class time sadly doodling images of his beloveddog. When he learns about electricity from his science teacher, theimposing Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau),Victor resolves to harness itspowers and re-animate Sparky.
In a scene that directly recalls Frankenstein,he revives the carcass of Sparky, and to his joy, his old friendreturns, cheerful as ever. Victor tries to hide his stitched-togethercreation to no avail. His classmates seek to imitate Victor's efforts,with bizarrely funny, mutated results.
One of the most captivating characters is Mr. Rzykruski, modeled on Vincent Price, the actor whose last role was in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. Landau deftly captures Price's distinctive vocal cadences.
Thetale will resonate powerfully with anyone who has loved a dog andsuffered its loss. A few scenes may be a bit scary for the youngestaudiences, and Victor's act of bringing a beloved pet back to life couldrequire a conversation with children about not trying this at home.
Stop-motionanimation is the ideal medium here, bringing puppets to life as itdoes. Sparky is adorable as a living canine and equally endearing as astitched and bolted creation. In both forms, he has the same spunkypersonality and eager-to-please, wide-eyed grin.
Based on Burton's 1984 live-action short of the same name - and incorporating some of the original drawings - Frankenweenie isenlivened with beguiling visuals and captivating action sequences. Thescience is murky at best, but the underlying themes are profound, andthe story is equal parts funny and poignant. It's Burton's most movingfilm.
While the director's trademark stylistic touches are clearlyevident - after his reanimation, Sparky casually sheds body partsrather than fur, and graveyards are a key location - the story has anemotional heft that's unusual for Burton, who has often been moreconcerned with the eccentric than the heart-stirring.
It has Halloween classic writ large all over it, but Frankenweenie is a family-friendly fantasy that will enthrall audiences any time of year.