A loving variation on the old boy-and-his-dead-dog story, director Tim Burton's Frankenweenie is a gleefully macabre kids' movie and a triumph of visual design. You'll see some things here you've never seen onscreen before. By working simultaneously in three distinctive cinematic formats—3-D, black-and-white and stop-motion animation—Burton has created a brand new visual texture for his extended Frankenstein riff.
It goes like this: Young Victor (Charlie Tahan) is a shy, science-loving kid in the small town of New Holland. When Victor's beloved dog Sparky is hit by a car, he turns to the lessons of science teacher Mr. Rzyfruski (Martin Landau), who suggests dead tissue can be reanimated with electricity.
Victor's experiment is a success, and the scene in which he resuscitates li'l Sparky in his attic laboratory is so stylishly executed it gave me shivers. It may be the best mad scientist scene ever.
From here, the film folds in references to classic monster movies as well as nods to Burton's own Goth canon. It's fun to watch the film recycle story elements with new variations on Igor, the Bride and even the torch-wielding mob.
As befits the theme, the rest of
Frankenweenie feels stitched together from various parts. The film is technically a remake of Burton's own 1984 short, but it's been through many screenwriters over the years. The story is perfectly serviceable, but it's really just a structure on which to hang Burton's remarkable compositions.
In fact, there's a quiet moment early in Frankenweenie that sums up the approach of the whole film. Victor has just lost Sparky and lies sleepless in bed. Raindrops run down his bedroom windowpane and are reflected on his face in such a way that he seems to be crying tears of light.
This is a classic technique in black-and-white cinematography, and it's famously tricky to pull off. But Burton does it here with stop-motion animation. Which, if you think about it, should be impossible.
That's movie magic for you. So yes, film nerds will find plenty of stuff to geek out on. But as a PG-rated Halloween movie, will the kids dig it? My 9-year-old loved it, but Frankenweenie does have its moments of nightmarish Burtonian intensity. Parents might want to check out some online trailers before bringing younger kids.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Surface appearances."