Tim Burton continues his quest to mix the scary with the cutesy, the horrifying with the heartwarming, in "Frankenweenie," a stop-motion animated feature about a little boy who misses his dead dog so much that he jolts it back to life. Though shot in stark black and white like a classic Universal monster movie, this is actually a Disney film, which means there's plenty of fairy dust sprinkled around.
"Frankenweenie" centers on Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), an eccentric kid whose best friend is a bull terrier named Sparky. After Sparky's untimely end, Victor gets a ghoulish idea that involves grave-digging, a lightning storm and a Ben Franklinesque kite. The result: Sparky is good as new, save for the unsightly sewing job. Soon nearly every kid in the subdivision is off to the pet cemetery, but subsequent experiments turn out a little differently.
Burton has been mining this dark-but-delightful vein for a long time now ("Frankenweenie" began as a live-action short in 1984), which means this movie can't get by on novelty. The script, by frequent Burton collaborator John August, feels somewhat thin, populated mostly by jokey homages like the mopey Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and a hunchback kid named Edward "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer). The film's most memorable character is Mr. Rzykruski, an Eastern European science teacher given just the right touch of Cold War insanity by Martin Landau ("Ed Wood"); Sparky is also an endearing creation, imbued with wiggly, waggly dogginess by animation supervisor Trey Thomas and his team.
For all its dark shadings, though, "Frankenweenie" is so softhearted that it passes up the chance to confront real issues of death, mortality and grieving. It's a quintessential Burton film, but also more Disney than a lot of Disney films.
PLOT A budding young scientist jolts his dead dog back to life. RATING PG (scary scenes and mildly gruesome humor)
PLAYING AT Area theaters, some in 3-D
BOTTOM LINE Quintessential Tim Burton, mixing ghoulish humor and childlike whimsy. Landau, as a crazed science teacher, steals the show.
Tim Burton: a boy, his dog and a movie
Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" features plenty of homages to classic monster movies -- those produced by Universal in the 1930s, atomic horror from the '50s; there's even a cameo from Christopher Lee as Dracula in one of England's Hammer productions.
But Burton made sure to note that the movie geek references were just window dressing for a very personal story about processing grief and coping with loss. ("Frankenweenie" concerns Victor Frankenstein, a young boy, who borrows a page from Mary Shelley's famous mad scientist to resurrect his beloved bull terrier, Sparky, after he's hit by a car.)
"I was a boy once," Burton, 54, said. "I had a dog. It was based on that first kind of pure relationship. It was quite unconditional, your first love in a way. He also had this thing called distemper -- they said he wasn't going to live for very long, and he ended up living quite a long time, but there was always this specter hanging over. You're a kid, you don't really understand it, but that's where the whole thing sort of stemmed from."
"Frankenweenie" was shot over 21 / 2 years inside a converted warehouse in East London. About 200 puppets -- including 16 Sparkys -- were manufactured for the production. -- Los Angeles Times