Director Tim Burton started out as an animator at Disney, and after working on such milquetoast projects as “The Fox and The Hound” and “The Black Cauldron” he was greenlighted to develop some of his own stuff. After a few animated shorts, he made his first live-action film at age 25 in 1984, “Frankenweenie.” This was slated to be the “special feature” with a rerelease of “Pinocchio,” but Disney refused to release it after it landed a PG rating. When Burton asked what he could do to fix it, he was told: “There’s nothing you can cut, it’s just the tone.”
Thus you can imagine Burton’s pleasure when, some 30 years later, his new version of “Frankenweenie” opens with the trademark logo of the Disney Magic Kingdom suddenly turning black under a full moon as lightning flashes ominously. Yes, revenge is sweetest when served cold, and it’s easy to imagine Burton madly rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee.
The new “Frankenweenie” is being called Burton remaking Burton, but it’s more like a mashup, lifting the story (and camera setups) from the 1984 film and wedding it to his quite popular Goth-cute stop-motion animated style, as seen in “Vincent,” “Corpse Bride” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It goes deeper than that, though — all three of those films featured dogs: a live one named Abercrombie subjected to mad-scientist experiments in “Vincent,” a ghost dog named Zero who saves Christmas for Jack Skellington in “Nightmare” and a dead dog named Scraps whose bones come back to life in “Corpse Bride.”
If this seems like a bit of an obsession, well, it is: Burton has spent much of his career mired in his childhood obsessions — for better and for worse — and he did love and lose a mutt, which was his first experience of death. Burton takes that sense of loss and further blends it with Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” classic and a fistful of old Universal horror and Toho monster movie tropes to create a story that’s as touching as it is strange. A woman I overheard put it best, as she perused a Disney office poster of the undead dog in “Frankenweenie,” Sparky: “He’s soooo cute … or not. I’m not sure.”
Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is very much the Burton figure, growing up in white-picket-fence suburban America but living in the shadows of his attic, where he makes primitive stop-motion monster movies starring army men, rubber dolls and his best and only friend, Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor is inconsolable, but after his crazed science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) demonstrates how electricity can move the muscles of a dead frog, Victor gets an idea.
One dark and stormy night he digs up the grave of his beloved pet, and hoists him up into the midst of some lightning strikes with the help of his hunchbacked classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer). Before you can scream “It’s alive!,” a sewn-up Sparky is back chasing his tail and licking his master’s hand.
Needless to say, the appearance of a dog monster terrorizes the neighborhood — although Sparky is happily oblivious to his effect on people — and things get worse when Victor’s weird classmates begin to copy his experiment on other dead animals.
Burton’s usually best when he’s working with his own material, and “Frankenweenie” proves that rule, especially coming after “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows,” both rather soulless flicks that were all style, no story. Like “Corpse Bride,” “Frankenweenie” veers from the silly to the tender, with a great sense for gags as it weaves in all its monster-movie quotes. (The “Bride of Frankenstein” poodle is priceless.)
Every character in the film is lovingly designed, such as Goth-girl-next-door Elsa (Winona Ryder) with her question-mark hair or the bug-eyed “Weird Girl” (Catherine O’Hara) with her hissy, omen-dispensing cat Mr. Whiskers. Over 200 puppets and sets were created for the film, and “Frankenweenie” proves yet again — along with “Coraline” and “Wallace & Gromit” — that real, physical stop-motion kicks CGI animation’s butt six ways to Sunday. The 3-D is excellent, if a bit underused, but there are none of the focus or spatial problems common to rushed productions these days.
“Frankenweenie” never quite reaches the same level of inspired spook-world nuttiness that “Nightmare” or “Corpse Bride” did, but there’s plenty here to like, not least of which is that this weirdness is Disney’s holiday-season feel-good film here in Japan. Jack Skellington would approve.