Clever, funny and beautiful film guarantees a happy Halloweenie
After Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, the critical knives are out for Tim Burton. The good news is that Frankenweenie is his best film since Corpse Bride, with which it has more than a little in common.
A lovingly crafted, richly detailed stop-motion animated expansion of Burton's 1984 live-action short film of the same title, this is a heart- warming monochrome tale of a boy's bond with his undead dog.
Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) adores his pointy-nosed canine chum Sparky, whom he casts in all his home-made super 8 monster movies. And the funny-looking bull terrier clearly enjoys playing such terrifying cardboard-augmented creatures as the giant, marauding Sparkysaurus.
But then something terrible happens. Sparky is splatted by a car while fetching a ball. Naturally, loner Victor is inconsolable at the loss of his only pal.
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Inspiration strikes in a school science class taught by Mr Rzykruski (Burton regular Martin Landau, brilliantly channelling the director's beloved Vincent Price), who demonstrates how the power of electricity can miraculously animate the legs of a dead frog.
Victor races to the pet cemetery, disinters deceased Sparky, and harnesses lightning in traditional kite-flying style to revive his decomposing dog. So delighted is this patched-up pooch to be reunited with his human companion that he wags his tail until it flies off.
Alas, young Victor's trials are only just beginning. The town of New Holland is a deeply conservative place and the mayor, Mr Burgermeister (Martin Short), lives right next door. Keeping boisterous Sparky's reanimation a secret was always going to be a challenge, especially as he's taken a shine to well-groomed poodle-next-door Persephone, who's owned by Mayor Burgermeister's sulky goth chick niece, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder). This sets up a priceless Bride of Frankenstein visual gag, which Disney has seen fit to give away in the trailer.
Disney? Yes, Burton is now the toast of the very studio that fired him after he'd completed the original Frankenweenie on the grounds that he'd wasted Walt's resources on a film that was far too dark and scary to be shown to children.
These days, of course, kiddie animation seems to be dominated by ghoulish fare.
Frankenweenie arrives in the wake of ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, proving effortlessly spookier than both of them. Burton also seems to be enjoying his newfound power to push the buttons of Disney's core Middle American audience. During the inevitable angry mob scenes, when villagers rise up against Mr Rzykruski for committing the sin of education ("Apparently Pluto isn't good enough to be a planet anymore!"), he delivers a withering pro-science, anti-ignorance rant ("The problem here is that you're stupid…") that'll have the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre applauding wildly.
There are clever references to all the classic monster movies from Dracula to Godzilla, a nod to Gremlins, and a climax drawn directly from James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein. But you don't need to recognise any of them to enjoy this clever and funny yarn.
Victor's grotesque big-headed and spindly-limbed classmates are a delight, especially Edgar 'E' Gore (geddit?) – a hunchbacked kid who talks like Peter Lorre – and the aptly named, giant-eyed Weird Girl (Catherine O'Hara) whose fluffy cat Mr Whiskers has a key role to play in the unfolding PG-rated horror.
Let's hear it for Sparky too. He might be leaky, patched together rather inexpertly and plugged into the mains every so often to recharge, but apart from these minor differences he's one of the most authentically dog-like animated mutts of all time: loyal, playful, randy and dim. And just when you're anticipating a big, cheesy, triple-sickbag Disney family values moral, Victor's dad delivers the film's big message. Children everywhere would do well to heed his words: "Sometimes adults don't know what they're talking about."