Tim Burton returns to one of his very first directorial projects for the quirky and sweet "Frankenweenie," the story of a boy who harnesses the power of lightning to bring his beloved dog back from the dead. It's not a scary picture, but an adoring send-up of the monster movie genre, with a little of Mr. Burton's trademark eccentricity thrown in.
In 1984, Mr. Burton made a 30-minute live-action, black-and-white film by the same name for Disney, starring Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall as young Victor's parents. The original focuses tightly on a parody of the Frankenstein myth, in which the community rises in revolt against an arrogant idealist who tampers with the essence of nature, but with a cute and happy ending.
Still in black-and-white, but now animated and in 3-D, "Frankenweenie" sprawls a bit, but pleasingly so. Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) loses his dog Sparky in a car accident, when the terrier chases after a baseball hit improbably far by the bookish Victor. Extrapolating from an experiment conducted by sinister science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor decides to dig up his dog from a quite gothic and well-appointed pet cemetery and hook him up to a jury-rigged electrical amplification device.
The reanimated Sparky proves to be quite a handful, and difficult to keep under wraps. The challenges of concealing the dog from the prying eyes of neighbors provide most of the plot twists of the original short. In the new film, Victor is faced with a cohort of jealous classmates, who think Victor's experimentation with the power of life and death makes him a shoe-in to win the school science fair. They counter with their own reanimation projects, with predictably disastrous effects.
The portrait of Victor seems very personal for Mr. Burton. He's shy, obsessive, spends his odd hours making elaborate movies featuring Sparky. Victor's parents (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short) aren't sure what to make of their son, but are naturally inclined to be tolerant and charitable -- characteristics not shared by their neighbors.
In many ways, "Frankenweenie" distills the campy, subversive appeal of Mr. Burton's film to its purest essence. His town of New Holland, which sits in the shadow of a menacing and rickety windmill, is defined by superstition and conformity, but ultimately able to come to terms with the oddballs in their midst. This is exemplified by the treatment of Mr. Rzykruski, who is summoned to a meeting of the angry townsfolk and taken to task for his teaching methods -- which include an unapologetic spirit of free inquiry that the locals find a bit off-putting and insulting.
Mr. Burton is able to pull off an interesting trick in "Frankenweenie" by making fun of genre conventions while adhering to them to the letter. The 3-D is used to ratchet up the tension in key action sequences, but is mostly unobtrusive.
Despite its PG rating, probably earned for the scariness inherent in raising the dead, "Frankenweenie" is appropriate for school-age children. The child's eye point of view will certainly draw in young audiences, while the wry humor and knowing winks at horror-movie history will appeal to grown-ups.
CREDITS: Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by John August
RATING: PG for mild violence
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS