Once upon a time there was a boy who loved his pet. When it was killed by a cruel and indifferent world, the boy grieved — until technology allowed him to reanimate the pet, which grew bigger than ever.
That boy was Tim Burton, whose pet was a half-hour horror spoof called “Frankenweenie,” which he made for Disney in 1984. The studio hated it and fired the apprentice director, who then built a lucrative career elsewhere. Now Disney has bankrolled a full-length, animated version of “Frankenweenie.” It's an infectious labor of love, crystallizing the theme of creative rebirth and the look of yesteryear schlock that elevated Burton's live-action "Ed Wood" and his animated "Corpse Bride."
Like the recent and similarly targeted 'toon “Paranorman,” “Frankenweenie” begins with a boy protagonist watching a B-movie with his family. He is Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), a student in a town called New Holland that seems embalmed in the era of black-and-white TV. Victor has made a monster movie starring his canine best friend, a bull terrier named Sparky.
Victor, inspired by a wild-eyed teacher with a Bela Lugosi accent (Martin Landau), is excited about the upcoming science fair. But his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) want him to play sports and make friends. When Victor takes a swing at baseball, it causes a fatal accident for Sparky and the boy is devastated.
But then lightning strikes — literally — and Victor is able to raise his dog from the dead. He tries to keep the secret locked in his attic, but some science-fair competitors and an Igor-like neighbor sniff it out, and by the time of the city's annual carnival, freakish beasts arise from the pet cemetery.
While the big-headed, spindly puppets don't evoke enough emotion to make the movie a must-see, Burton's 3-D design team pours its heart into the monochrome surroundings, from the suburban décor to Victor's laboratory to the carnival midway. And although the movie deals with death, the macabre elements are sugar-coated enough for kids, while the stop-motion peril is paced like a '50s creepshow rather than a millennial shocker.
Some audiences might feel that “Frankenweenie” is creaky, but those on the same wavelength as Burton will gratefully declare it's alive.
Three stars out of four • Rating PG • Run time 1:27 • Content Mild peril and mature themes