Tim Burton’s 3D stop-motion animated reductionist homage to the Golden Era of horror films — namely the Universal films of the ‘30s — is beautiful thing. If that means including a few nods to Japan’s “Godzilla” films of the ‘50s so much the better to charm baby boomers who share Burton’s fond childhood memories of good old fashioned monster movies. The sound effects alone are a study in polished perfection. Every squeak, thunderbolt strike, and dog bark rings like a perfectly tuned bell. As with all of Tim Burton’s films, his painstaking attention to every detail of narrative and visual realization is always present. Based on a live-action half-hour short film Burton made in 1984, there’s an extra amount of filmmaking-love on display in “Frankenweenie” that makes the experience of watching it a truly special treat for the viewer.
The film’s shimmering black-and-white rendering is so immaculate and crisp that it takes your breath away. Burton pokes fun at his own mastery of stop-motion animation with an intro film-within-a-film that announces his young gothic protagonist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) as a budding filmmaker of horror movies. Victor screens his Godzilla-inspired home movie for his ‘50s era parents in the family living room. To his folk’s delight, Victor’s dog Sparky has a prominent role as the hero that destroys a winged monster that attacks the film’s cardboard town. At the end, the 8mm film stock burns against the projector lens. No worries; Victor can “fix” it.
Some woolly dinner table “advice” from Victor’s well-meaning dad (voiced by Martin Short) regarding Victor’s solitary habits leads the scrawny tow-headed lad to play baseball on a neighborhood team. Surprisingly, Victor has some power in his bat. Yet the glory of his first would-be home run is ruined by the untimely death of Sparky who gets hit by a car after running for the ball.
At school, Victor’s Vincent Price-lookalike science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau) gives the class a lesson in the power of electric current to animate a dead frog. Predisposed to scientific experimentation, Victor takes the cue to dig up Sparky and attempt to reanimate his pointy-nosed bull terrier with the use of some kites on a stormy night from the comfort of his attic laboratory. Victor can’t keep Sparky’s sudden return to the land of the living a secret from his nosey classmate Edgar, who promptly spills the beans to a couple of other copycat pals determined to ignite life in a their own deceased, or at least inanimate, creatures. A bag of “Sea-Monkeys” explodes into an army of especially creepy little villains after coming to life in a swimming pool. Among the pandemonium that ensues is the comical transformation of a black female poodle into a bride-of-Frankenstein-styled pup after she and the appropriately named Sparky rub noses.
Looking back at Burton’s flawed 1984 version of “Frankenweenie” is informative for the many layers of corrective narrative tissue the auteur has added with the help of his longtime script collaborator John August (“Big Fish” - 2003). Burton tosses in subtle references from his own filmography. A dash of “Corpse Bride” here, a pinch of “Edward Scissorhands” there, and a dose of “Mars Attacks!” gels neatly with details drawn from James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein." Tim Burton seems to be actively inviting adolescent audience members to pursue their own imaginative filmmaking projects. There’s a lot to appreciate in this tastefully punchy animated horror comedy. Repeated viewings are in order. “Frankenweenie” is poised to be the next best Halloween classic for kids.
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