The movie, a simple yet immensely pleasurable tale of a little boy and his undead dog, is good enough on its own. If you know the back story, it’s even better.
In 1984, when he was an eccentric young animator working for Disney, the young Burton made a 30-minute live-action short called “Frankenweenie,” about a boy named Victor and the scrappy pet he brings back to life after it’s hit by a car. The movie was weird, it was inventive, and it spooked the bejesus out of Disney executives, who refused to release it and fired Burton. After the director became famous in the wake of “Edward Scissorhands,” the company put it out on VHS; it now can be found as an extra on the “Nightmare Before Christmas” DVD.
The current entertainment landscape has been effectively Burton-ized; this season alone, there are two pallid family-film imitations, “ParaNorman” and “Hotel Transylvania,” that arguably wouldn’t exist had the director not made the world safe for light pop-goth gloom. The new, improved “Frankenweenie” is thus not only revenge served sweetly — it’s being released by Disney, tail between its legs — but a reminder that, at his best, Burton belongs in the same bleakly charming league as Charles Addams and Edward Gorey.
No live actors were harmed in its making; as with “Nightmare” and Burton’s “The Corpse Bride,” “Frankenweenie” is stop-motion animation. Like the classic horror movies to which it owes its genetic makeup (more on that later), it’s in black and white; unlike them, it’s in 3-D. Yet the film easily straddles new and old. The puppetry has a handmade, careworn quality — you can see the marks where the artisans have worked the characters over. The 3-D doesn’t boink you in the face but, instead, seduces a viewer into a sparse yet fully realized alternate world.
We’re in a familiar surreal suburbia, perhaps just down the block from “Edward Scissorhands.” Young Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan) is a gentle misfit who quite prefers being alone with his inventions and his spheroid little mutt, Sparky. The movie doesn’t set us up for an anti-bullying, things-get-better message as “ParaNorman” does; if anything, everyone’s a little monstrous here. Victor’s schoolmates include a sniveling henchman (Atticus Shaffer) named Edgar Gore — E. Gore, get it? — who talks like Peter Lorre, a towering Boris Karloff look-alike (Martin Short), the slightly depressive Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), and Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara), whose eyes take up most of her cranium and who carries a moth-eaten cat named Mr. Whiskers everywhere she goes. If Edgar Allan Poe ran a day-care center, it’d look like this.
Early on, Sparky meets his maker chasing a ball across the street; it’s not graphic but it sure seems final, and the very young and very tender will have a brief rough time of it. Taking inspiration from his sepulchral science teacher (Martin Landau) — the character’s a ringer for Burton’s onetime father-figure, Vincent Price — Victor hightails it to his attic, fires up the Tesla coils, and reanimates Sparky as a frisky, affectionate patchwork pet. Man’s best fiend.
So far, “Frankenweenie” has followed in the tracks of the 1984 original to the point of similar camera shots. Once Sparky returns, it takes off in beguiling new directions. There’s a science fair coming up, and all the kids want in on Victor’s breakthrough; the local pet cemetery is quickly looted, battery cables pilfered, makeshift operating theaters set up. The results are not as expected.
“Frankenweenie” is a mere 87 minutes long, which turns out to be just the right length; there’s not enough time for Burton to go off the rails as he does in so many of his films. Along with “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” it’s his most sustained, consistent work, and it builds naturally to a climax at the local town fair that is a thing of eldritch farce.
I won’t spoil the fun other than to say that all the nods to horror-movie history that have peppered the movie up to now come to a delirious head. “Frankenweenie” doesn’t throw these at us with overbearing winkery, but rather folds them in like extras in a soufflé. Old and new, everything’s here: the phone booth from “The Birds,” the porta-potty from “Jurassic Park,” a jigger of “Gremlins,” a dash of “Godzilla.” Burton isn’t doing this for hipster points but out of love. These movies, he’s saying, are what made him the mad scientist he is today.
Is it really for kids? Oh my, yes — kids 8 and up or so, and their parents and grandparents and cousins. “Frankenweenie” is scary, but then it’s funny, and, finally, it’s moving, both in its foolproof boy-meets-dog sentimentality and in the ease with which Burton connects the dots of his own history and that of the movies he cherishes.
The most critical forebear, obviously — Burton’s beloved ur-text — is “Frankenstein,” the 1931 cinematic classic that loosed Karloff and the iconic figure of the Frankenstein monster upon the world. From the bolts on Sparky’s neck to the clanking chains that lift the operating table to the lightning above, from the mob to the windmill, “Frankenweenie” resuscitates director James Whale’s baroque vision and makes it resonate for a new generation. If your children groove on this film, by all that is unholy sit them down with the original and watch their eyes go bigger than Weird Girl’s as they do the pop-culture math. Burton has created a literal “Young Frankenstein,” and . . . it’s alive.