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posted: 10/4/2012 6:00 AM

Burton's scary 'Frankenweenie' a triumph of black-and-white stop-motion animation

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  • A young science student named Victor reanimates his dead dog Sparky in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," a feature expansion of his original animated short film.

      A young science student named Victor reanimates his dead dog Sparky in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," a feature expansion of his original animated short film.

  • A young science student named Victor decides to reanimate his dead dog Sparky in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie."

      A young science student named Victor decides to reanimate his dead dog Sparky in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie."

  • A science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) becomes a creepy liability for the New Holland school system in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," a feature expansion of his original animated short film.

      A science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) becomes a creepy liability for the New Holland school system in Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," a feature expansion of his original animated short film.

  • Video: Frankenweenie trailer

 
 

Tim Burton's eye-popping, black-and-white, stop-motion animated 3-D feature "Frankenweenie" is a scarefully crafted valentine to Universal Pictures' classic monster movies of the '30s and '40s.

And to Japanese monster movies.

And to the late horror icon Vincent Price.

And to Joe Dante's critter thriller "Gremlins."

In short, "Frankenweenie" pays homage to every creature feature and cinematic entity that frightened and delighted Burton as a young lad, and he passes along the essence of those scares within the safe confines of a PG-rated black comedy about a young boy dealing with the death of his beloved pet dog.

On its own level, "Frankenweenie" can be surprisingly terrifying and shocking, much like Walt Disney's animated classic "Bambi" was back in 1942. (This probably explains why "Bambi" appears on the marquee at the local movie theater in New Holland, the setting of "Frankenweenie.")

For Burton -- the odd and quirky director of odd and quirky movies such as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Nightmare Before Christmas," "Dark Shadows" and others -- having Walt Disney Pictures distribute his movie "Frankenweenie" must be sweet and ironic justice.

The feature is an expanded version of his original 1984 film short that Burton created while working for Disney, when the bosses didn't quite get the director's macabre sense of humor. So the feature film version of "Frankenweenie" Burton planned never happened.

Until now.

This gloriously beautiful, shimmering black-and-white tale unfolds in the retro town of New Holland where young science geek Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) has his pet dog Sparky for a best friend, and for the hero/star of his ridiculously cheesy 8 mm homemade science-fiction movies.

One tragic day, poor Sparky bolts across a street to retrieve a ball. Look out for that car!

Too late.

Victor can't believe Sparky is gone. But is he? Really?

Up in his science lab in the Frankenstein attic, Victor goes to work on reanimating Sparky with the use of lightning. Of course, it works. He's alive! Albeit Sparky's ear occasionally falls off and Victor has to sew it back on.

Victor attempts to hide what appears to be a living, stitched-together stuffed animal from his parents (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) and from his strange neighbor girl Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and his nosy classmates, some of whom catch on to Victor's secret and steal his notes to make their own reanimated pet animals.

Everyone in New Holland appears to be an escapee from a vintage, low-budget, black-and-white Universal horror film set, especially Victor's creepy classmate, Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer), whose eye appears to be on the verge of falling out of his face.

Even Victor's strangely beguiling science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, affecting a Slavic accent) appears to have clocked too many hours in a coffin for the good of his skin coloring.

The teacher is clearly modeled after Vincent Price, star of Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" and the subject of Burton's 1982 film short "Vincent." He gets the pleasure -- through screenwriter John August's plot expansion -- of reaming out the New Holland populace for being ridiculously ignorant of science and fearful of learning new ideas.

Of course, what happens later at the annual Dutch Days carnival probably doesn't help his case, for that's when Victor's competitive classmates reanimate their own deceased pets, and accidentally recreate a turtle version of Godzilla, Dracula's vampire bat, a werewolf-like critter, and a zillion sea monkeys rising out of a swimming pool to pillage the town like those irksome "Gremlins" on a bender.

Does the film short "Frankenweenie" really work as a full-length feature? For the most part, yes, although it feels padded around the middle, and the characters aren't complex or conflicted enough to snag our attention and sympathy for the long haul.

Engaging, yes, but "Frankenweenie" squanders its opportunity to say something meaningful about the touchy subject of death, especially to kids. It could have explained how death fits in to the natural order of the world. Or provided kids with some useful coping mechanisms for it. Or offered a teachable, poignant moment about the permanency of death the way "Bambi" did.

Instead, "Frankenweenie" settles for the expected Hollywood ending, a final shot that proves to be cute, upbeat and thoroughly dismissible.

With a braver and more daring finale, this movie could have been this generation's "The Yearling" or "Old Yeller."

Instead, it settles for imitating Tinkerbell's joyful resurrection in "Peter Pan" one time too many.

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