Sparky is an ideal pet dog.
The bull terrier is built low and speedy, with a head shaped like one of those Spy vs. Spy guys. He’s spirited. Loyal. Brave.
He’s also dead.
Following his traffic-related demise, whiz-kid owner Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) vows to bring beloved Sparky back to life. The experiment might even win the school science fair.
“Science is not good or bad, Victor. But it can be used for both ways,” he is told by eccentric teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau).
Victor rejuvenates the lovable pooch, but meddling with such forces does indeed incite others with less noble concerns. Before long, his sleepy town of New Holland is overrun with monstrosities.
Filmmaker Tim Burton abandons his recent foray into well-worn material a la “Dark Shadows,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Sweeney Todd” with his first original effort since 2005’s “Corpse Bride.” Like that ghoulish fantasy, “Frankenweenie” is crafted via stop-motion animation. It offers a stylish collision of ‘50-era suburbia and James Whale-era “Frankenstein.” Along the way, it delivers homages to sci-fi invasion classics, Godzilla movies, Universal horror icons and -- most importantly -- Burton’s own back catalog, from “Mars Attacks!” to “Ed Wood.:
Structurally, “Frankenweenie” is brief and pragmatic. Tonally, it’s often scary, but in that kid-friendly scary/funny way that Burton refined decades ago with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
Much of the humor comes courtesy of the character design – a staggering display of detail and definition is contained among the nearly 200 puppets required for production. They’re put to good use with hilarious characters such as Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara), whose wide-eyes and pinprick pupils are shared by her cat, Mr. Whiskers. She explains to Victor that the animal can foretell strange happenings. She knows this by the letter-shaped poop he leaves in the litter box.
What really energizes the movie is the tangible bond Victor shares with Sparky.
When you lose someone you love, they never really leave you, says Mrs. Frankenstein (also O’Hara).
Burton is often criticized for keeping an aloof distance from his material, which is why his Batman movies date so horribly. They shy away from making an emotional connection in order to radiate a cavalier vibe. Whereas, Burton really makes the heartache palpable that Victor experiences at the loss of a pet. And it gets even more agonizing when the undead terrier becomes a target for small-minded townsfolk who blame their problems on the endearing pup. “Frankenweenie” is a borderline tearjerker. It’s like “Old Yeller” crossed with “Reanimator.”
The one factor that detracts from “Frankenweenie” is familiarity. Had Burton’s other fine stop-motion pics “Corpse Bride” or “The Nightmare Before Christmas” not existed, his latest might better stand out. Add in the fact it’s already a remake of his own half-hour short from 1984 -- a piece that got him fired from Disney for reportedly squandering money on a project deemed too morbid for youngsters. As good as it is, “Frankenweenie” isn’t necessarily unique.
Burton is clearly most comfortable when strolling around the same graveyards.