“Frankenweenie” is darned near an instant classic. Tim Burton has taken the animated short that launched his career and expanded it into a vivid and moving essay on science and love – the love a budding middle-school scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has for his dog Sparky.
That was the kernel of the original 1984 “Frankenweenie,” back at the beginning of Burton’s career. Burton gives that genius concept full voice in a rich, delicately textured, 3-D jewel in the stop-motion animation style.
Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a loner, a smart kid who spends hours in the attic, fiddling with science projects. He’s pretty much friendless, save for his beloved weenie dog, Sparky.
Mom (Catherine O’Hara) indulges him, but Dad (Martin Short) wants the boy to get out, make some friends and take up a sport. Victor just wants to come up with a project for the big science fair at school.
Dad suggests they “compromise,” and to Dad, that means “nobody gets what they want,” so Victor finds himself at the plate, struggling to master baseball.
Miracle of miracles, he hits a home run. But a highlight of his young life is crushed when Sparky chases the home-run ball into the street and is killed.
Victor, a morose, quiet kid, mourns in a morose, quiet way. Mom’s reassurance that no one you ever love dies, “they just move into a special place in your heart,” isn’t enough. It’s only when Victor sits through a demented, inspired thunder-storm lesson by his Eastern Bloc science teacher (the always inspired Martin Landau) that he has his answer. Mr. Rzykruski has made a dead frog’s muscles twitch with electricity. Victor will dig up Sparky, patch and stitch him up, attach a positive and negative lead on his neck (bolts, of course) and thunder-storm jolt his beloved dog back to life.
Burton revels in the props and appliances Victor re-purposes for his project. But he ensures that there’s an animated warmth to the boy’s connection to this playful goof of a mutt, who is pretty much his old self once he’s revived – save for the odd body part that falls off.
There are rival students (who look like extras from old Universal horror films of the ’30s) aiming to beat Victor at the science fair, and a cute Goth neighbor girl (Winona Ryder, of course) with a poodle whom Sparky sparks for. And there are big messages here, about what makes a child’s connection to a dog so primal, and death and about science.
When the volatile Mr. Rzykruski is challenged by parents and the school board, he gives a tactless rant that would rattle the “ignorant” and “stupid” corners of America to their core. “You do not understand science, so you are AFRAID of it!” thunders Landau (who won an Oscar as Burton’s version of Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood”). It’s no wonder that “Your country does not make enough scientists.”
Godzilla gags and visual riffs on everything from “Gremlins” to the Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated TV specials (“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”) of the 1960s and ’70s flesh out this cadaverously cute tale.
But it is Burton’s ability to give heart to the weird, the unsympathetic and sometimes animated characters in his films that has been the hallmark of the director’s career. Don’t be surprised if your eyes mist over for a silly dog of clay and the stick-boy who loves him.
And parents, if you didn’t know, choose the words of comfort you say to a child mourning a lost pet carefully. With the inspiration of the right science teacher, “we’d bring him back if we could” might come back to bite you.