Deliciously twisted yet genuinely warm, “Frankenweenie” is my new favorite Tim Burton movie. At least it’s in a heated competition with ”Ed Wood” and “Sweeny Todd” for top honors.
Like Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” this is a wonderfully inventive, thoroughly hilarious and spectacularly executed homage to the old Universal Pictures horror movies.
Except that it’s animated, told from a child’s point of view and has a big, big heart. It’s destined to become a classic.
(This feature is an expansion of the live-action short “Frankenweenie” which Burton directed back in 1984 while employed by Disney. You might want to check out the original on YouTube.)
Presented in glorious black and white (I saw the 3-D version…nifty), this is the story of a boy and his dog.
Victor (last-name: Frankenstein) is a loner whose best friend is his dog Sparky. Victor’s parents try to get him to participate in sports and other group activities, but he’s happiest either making monster movies in which Sparky stars or holed up in the attic of their tract home where he turns everyday appliances into lab equipment for his scientific experiments.
When poor Sparky is run over by a car, a mourning Victor secretly exhumes the pooch’s body from the pet cemetery and wires it up to receive a charge of lightning from a passing storm.
The resuscitated Sparky is his old affectionate self, though he does attract flies and occasionally loses his tail to excessive wagging. (“I can fix that,” Victor promises.)
The trouble comes when the other kids in Victor’s class, all vying for top honors at a science fair, stumble upon the resurrected Sparky and demand that Victor share his new technology with them.
Pretty soon their bland burg is overrun with mutant creatures, the results of experiments gone wrong.That’s the story’s broad arc, but the real joy of “Frankenweenie” is to be found in the details.
First there’s the wondrous blend of the banal and the just plain weird. The town Victor lives in is practically a photo-realistic suburb, filled with one-story ranch homes accurate in every detail.
But the people who reside there (they’re puppets brought to life through painstaking stop-motion animation) all have a vaguely cadaverous look. And Victor’s classmates are clearly patterned after famous screen monsters. One kid is a hulking Boris Karloff type. Another is a hunchback with bulging eyes and teeth like a pioneer cemetery.
Particularly amusing is a spacy blonde girl who sifts through her white cat’s litter box and retrieves kitty turds. She studies their shapes, hoping to find omens of her classmates’ futures.
And “Frankenweenie” is constantly evoking other horror movies, not just the “Frankenstein” canon but “Godzilla,” “Gremlins”…there’s even a torchlit mob and a climactic fire in an old windmill.
Many of the voices are familiar: Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Atticus Shaffer (weird little Brick on TV’s “The Middle”) and especially Martin Landau as Victor’s ancient, elongated science teacher.
Burton and his co-writers manage even to inject a bit of social commentary, as with a PTA meeting to decide the fate of the science teacher whose curriculum rubs more conservative citizens the wrong way.
“They like what science gives them,” the old man observes, “but not the questions science asks.”
Above all, though, “Frankenweenie” has heart. It’s about the love between a child and his pet, and despite the borderline creepiness of the character design and the happy perversities of the film’s outlook, the movie has a sweetness at its core than cannot be diluted.