It was a little surprising to me that Tim Burton had never made a boy-and-his-dog story before, so much so, in fact, that I looked this up only to find that he had made “Frankenweenie” in 1984 as a live-action short film. Twenty-eight years later and you can tell that this story, now in animated form, is still a passion project.
Victor (Charlie Tahan) is a lanky, dark-haired high-school loner who prefers making 8mm movies and working on science experiments with his canine buddy Sparky to making friends. We know that Sparky is not long for this world, leaving Victor heartbroken until his science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) explains that electricity can stimulate muscles, even dead ones. Before long Sparky is stitched up and shocked back to life, and while he’ll never win best in show, he makes Victor’s classmates mighty nervous about the upcoming science fair competition.
Stop-motion animation has become the destination for dark fairy-tales, started by Burton with the masterpiece “Nightmare Before Christmas.” It’s a trend that has continued with the Laika animation studio, makers of “Paranorman” (see Craig’s review) Burton uses this technique to perfection, creating characters with distinctive shape and personality. I particularly liked Victor’s eccentric classmates, wide-eyed and demented-looking take-offs on Igor and Boris Karloff, and science teacher, the only source of the film’s real big laughs (yes, Burton still has trouble with comedy here as well). Using black and white is a nice touch too, a harking back to the monster movies of old.
All these gimmicks are employed effectively by Burton to create a lovable story of boy-dog friendship, things never getting too sappy or depressing. You do wish “Frankenweenie” were funnier, so that you could become more involved during a bland middle section. The payoff comes through in the end, however, with an action-packed monster mash-up. “Frankenweenie” is not on a level with “Christmas” but its distinctly Burtonian touches will strike a chord with fans.
Visit the Disney site for trailer and images from the production of “Frankenweenie”