Here’s how good Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is: It’s got enough juice to jolt the bad taste of Dark Shadows right out of your system. More Beetlejuice than Alice in Wonderland, more Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands than Planet of the Apes, this delightfully twisted story about a boy and his (dead) dog showcases precisely what Burton excels at: blending the macabre and the heartfelt in a perfect, if oddball, union.
Based on a short film Burton made in 1984, Frankenweenie gets fleshed out — so to speak — without ever nearing the point that it feels stretched. The story focuses on young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan, who played Zac Efron’s little brother in Charlie St. Cloud). Victor is an outcast, really; he has loving parents (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) but not many friends. He loves science and making monster movies and, most of all, his dog Sparky. When Sparky is accidentally killed by a car, the distraught Victor does what any self-respecting budding genius would do (in a Tim Burton movie, anyway): Emboldened by his bizarre teacher Mr. Ryzkruski (Martin Landau) and an experiment involving a dead frog and electricity, Victor sets up a Rube Goldberg-style laboratory in the attic and uses a bolt of lightning to reanimate his best friend.
Everything is fine, more or less, until a classmate spots the revived Sparky — who sports a comic array of stitches and is prone to casually scratch off an ear — and blabs to the other science whizzes in class. Pretty soon the other kids are digging up their dead and decaying pets in hopes of bringing them back to life to win the school science fair, only this time the consequences are monstrous — and hilarious.
Burton has said that Frankenweenie is a personal movie — Sparky was inspired by the dog he had as a child, he says — and the film feels personal in every scene despite its outlandish premise. That feeling is aided by the terrific stop-motion animation, which gives these imaginatively designed characters dimension and heft. Filmed in black and white, the movie riffs on the classic Frankenstein throughout, of course — right down to the bolts in Sparky’s neck and the climax, during which he’s chased by angry, torch-wielding townspeople. But there are homages to other classic monster films, too, and they flit by almost too quickly to count. Burton even gives a nod to his own films by casting the great Landau (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) as Mr. Ryzkruski, and Winona Ryder ( Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) as Elsa van Helsing, Victor’s pre-teen Goth next door neighbor.
Frankenweenie is a monster movie first and foremost (though it’s never truly scary, even when mischievous sea monkeys come to life to wreak havoc on the town), and its rather pointed message about the importance of science is thoughtful and topical. But what makes it special is the touching relationship between Victor and Sparky. Even the most stoic pet owner can’t help but feel a twinge at Victor’s love for his canine sidekick, and that emotion buoys all the humor. The best thing about an animated monster movie with this much heart is: It’s alive. In the best possible way.