The dark at the top of the attic stairs. The deceptively quiet emptiness of a school hallway at night. A cemetery during a midnight storm. Such are just a few of the horror-movie conceits filmmaker Tim Burton lovingly pulls together in Frankenweenie, the fully fleshed-out animated feature film inspired by a short film he made more than two decades ago—an effort that got its auteur fired from Disney.
Ironically, this Frankenweenie came from the very studio that was so freaked out about the concept all those years ago. No matter, as this black-and-white movie should be considered a gift from all concerned to anybody who loves good movies, tantalizing children’s stories, beautiful technique, dark humor and, yes, horror stories the way they used to be.
Young Victor (Charlie Tahan) is a bit of loner who prefers science and the company of his dog Sparky to baseball and creepy classmates E Gore (Atticus Shaffer) and Cynthia (Catherine O’Hara). Dad (Martin Short) worries about his son’s popularity, but Mom (also O’Hara) takes their son’s peculiarities in stride. That is, until Victor brings Sparky, who dies pretty early in the proceedings, back from the dead. “Victor,” says Mom. “You do understand we’re gonna need to have a talk . . .”
Before long, Victor’s secret invention comes to the attention of his classmates, each of whom wants to beat him in the school science fair; and, as can be expected, such lust for glory leads to unsavory—and highly unethical—lab experiments involving lots of electricity and a pet cemetery. Along the way, the kids’ beloved science teacher (Martin Landau) is run out of town on a rail by citizens keyed to a limited definition of normalcy, and Victor’s sensitive neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder) makes inroads at being his friend. There is a dazzling climax that plucks key moments from, among other films, The Birds, Godzilla and Jurassic Park, with a few references to Lassie thrown in for good measure.
Visually, the movie is surprisingly lush, reminiscent of other rich black-and-white movies like Raging Bull and The Night of the Hunter. John August’s screenplay is lucid and tight, with a few unexpected wry surprises, like Sparky’s actual demise (it’s kind of weird when you and your kids are wondering, a few minutes into the movie, “How’s the doggie going to die?”), and a surprising amount of heart.