Sparky the wonder dog, a bull terrier with a perpetual smile, is a dear pet and pal.
He happily plays Sparkysaurus in a 3-D monster movie for Victor, a long-legged loner who at 10 is already an imaginative, fledgling filmmaker in "Frankenweenie."
The boy's father worries he will "turn out weird" and wishes he spent more time outside with friends (in truth, Sparky is Victor's only buddy) although his mother says he's just in his own world. To please his dad and prove he can juggle a sport and a science fair project, Victor agrees to try baseball but triumph and tragedy strike within seconds.
3.5 stars = Very Good
- Starring: Voices of Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder.
- Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.
He improbably smacks a home run but Sparky breaks loose and does what he loves most: chases the ball. The pooch runs into the street and is hit and killed by a car (we see the emotional aftermath but not the accident) and Victor is devastated despite his parents' efforts to console him and give Sparky a dignified burial.
After watching a new teacher, a Vincent Price look-alike with a thick Eastern European accent, send jolts of electricity through a frog specimen, Victor is inspired to try something similar with Sparky. Like Mary Shelley's scientist, Victor devises a way to restore life to Sparky's freshly exhumed body employing the lightning that regularly crackles over the suburban town of New Holland.
And he's alive ... he's alive!
Victor couldn't be happier but his attempts to keep Sparky's resurrection a secret from his classmates are far less successful in this madcap monster movie that runs along twin tracks delighting children (and maybe spooking them if they're not elementary-school age) and adults.
Tim Burton directed "Frankenweenie" based on an idea he spun into a stop-motion animated short called "Vincent" in 1982. It was about a boy who fantasizes he is Vincent Price and the acclaimed actor narrated the film; he later played the role of The Inventor in Mr. Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" before his 1993 death.
"Frankenweenie" is in 3-D in some theaters but it looks nothing like the other animated movies which have wondrously waltzed through theaters this year. It's in black and white but that dovetails perfectly with its homage to classic horror movies and it's done with stop motion as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" were.
It's a labor-intensive process in which an animator must stop and reposition a puppet 24 times to get a single second of filmed action. More than 200 puppets, with huge, expressive egg-shaped eyes and human hair, were created for the film which proves to be clever, funny, surprisingly moving and spiked with emotion.
"Frankenweenie" is salted with all sorts of creature and cinematic references such as: Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer, Brick on "The Middle") channels the voice and mannerisms of Peter Lorre; the name of classmate Elsa Van Helsing pays tribute to actress Elsa Lanchester and Bram Stoker's vampire hunter; and when a black poodle with a tuft of hair that could rival Marge Simpson's beehive is shocked by Sparky, two white streaks zigzag through her curls.
The oddball children in Victor's class are a motley crew, with one who looks like a junior Boris Karloff, another who is roly-poly, an Asian boy who is determined to win the science fair and a blonde known simply and appropriately as Weird Girl whose constant companion is her cat, Mr. Whiskers.
Mobs, with or without torches, go after a couple of characters and Victor's science teacher defends his field, which comes under attack. "They like what science gives them but not the questions science asks," he advises, in part.
Martin Landau, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood," talks for the teacher while other alums of Mr. Burton's movies chime in, too. Winona Ryder is Elsa while Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short talk for the parents of Victor, who is voiced by Charlie Tahan (Zac Efron's younger brother in "Charlie St. Cloud").
A colleague brought his children, ages 8 and 13, to a preview this week and they loved it. The fact their dog died months ago and they welcomed a new one into their hearts may have heightened their emotional reaction.
But even someone who never owned a pet dog, cat, turtle, hamster or batch of Sea-Monkeys likely will be moved. Is there nothing simpler or sweeter than a fantasy about a boy and his dog, one who might be back from the dead but could give Lassie a run for her money if Victor fell down a well or worse.