In 1984, a young director named Tim Burton got his big break and was hired by Walt Disney Studios to make a live-action short. Given complete creative control, Burton produced “Frankenweenie,” an odd little movie where a boy uses “mad science” to reanimate the family dog.
The movie was deemed too strange and too scary for the Disney brand; Burton was promptly fired and the movie was shelved.
Surely, Burton, who has since become one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, must appreciate the irony of being hired back nearly 30 years later by the exact same company to remake the exact same movie that got him fired in the first place.
The 2012 version of “Frankenweenie” is animated this time around, slightly stranger and slightly scarier than the original, and it just so happens to be one of the best movies Burton has ever made.
In a lot of ways, you could look at “Frankenweenie” as Burton’s “greatest hits” album. It’s as if all of his career highlights were dumped into a blender then pureed into a bizarre, funny, heartfelt concoction that is quintessentially Burton.
There’s stop-motion animation (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “The Corpse Bride”), black-and-white photography (“Ed Wood”), a plastic, suburban setting (“Edward Scissorhands”), gleeful chaos (“Mars Attacks!”), and a thrilling climax set inside of a windmill (“Sleepy Hollow”).
Cribbing directly from “Frankenstein,” “Frankenweenie” introduces us to Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a young boy living in the sleepy suburb of New Holland.
Victor is a bit of a loner, although certainly not an outcast when you see the group of weirdoes that populate his classroom.
Victor’s greatest joy is making movies with his beloved dog Sparky, a sweet little pooch who meets an untimely end after being hit by a car.
As you would imagine, young Victor is devastated. Then one day in science class after watching the legs of a dead frog twitch and jump with jolts of electricity, Victor is struck by inspiration and sets out to bring his best friend back to life.
In a laboratory constructed in his attic out of Christmas decorations and toy robots, Victor resurrects Sparky in classic Frankenstein-ian fashion with a little help from a bolt of lightning.
Aside from some poorly attached appendages, Sparky is back to his old self; however, Victor tries to keep his scientific success a secret, realizing that an undead dog might not sit too well with the neighbors.
Although Sparky’s secret doesn’t remain hidden for long thanks to Victor’s nosy, hunchbacked classmate Edgar Gore (Atticus Shaffer). “E.” Gore. Get it?
Anyway, thinking Victor resurrected Sparky to win the science fair, Victor’s classmates take their own stabs at bringing dead animals back to life, although with wildly unintended results.
There’s some great voice work done here by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, who, in addition to playing Victor’s parents, take on the roles of various other townsfolk.
Winona Ryder plays the girl next door, Elsa Van Helsing, and Martin Landau is thoroughly awesome as Victor’s caustic and passionate science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (sounds like “Rice Krispy”).
Burton perfectly captures the tone of the old Universal monster movies, especially when the other kids’ creations begin to run amok in town. The movie is more “silly scary” than anything else, although parents may want to think twice before taking younger kids.
That said, this is the perfect Halloween family movie and a fun treat for fans of classic horror movies. And feel free to skip the 3-D versions, unless you really like spending money. You aren’t missing much.
In a very literal way, Burton’s career has come full circle with “Frankenweenie,” and what’s even better, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have to worry about getting fired after this movie comes out.
“Frankenweenie” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, and action.