Before director Tim Burton struck box-office gold, he toiled away in obscurity as a 22-year-old animator apprentice for Walt Disney Studios.
There at the House of Mouse in the early 1980s, he put together a little black-and-white short about a boy who brings his deceased puppy back to life, a la Dr. Frankenstein.
Burton called it “Frankenweenie.”
The Disney execs were not sold on his quirky, dark-comedy riff on the classic horror movie that had stoked his childhood imagination. It was too scary, they said, too dark and unsettling for kids. Burton’s back-from-the-dead doggie, they said, was no Snow White.
Burton didn’t last long at Disney. They sent him packing — and on to much greater things, including “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Alice in Wonderland” and other hit movies, all signed with his colorfully off-center, darkly comedic, idiosyncratic flourish.
Now, some 25 years later, Disney has welcomed Burton — and “Frankenweenie” — back with open arms. Times may have changed, and Disney may have finally seen the gem they overlooked all those years ago.
But “Frankenweenie” is still the quirky dark comedy Burton originally intended it to be, now stretched to full movie length. This time, it’s done with meticulous stop-motion animation, instead of live action, which allows even more leeway for Burton’s trademark touches of creative weirdness.
Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder are the recognizable star names providing voices for the delightfully imaginative black-and-white tale of young Victor (Frankenstein), in this version a misfit, science-obsessed teen growing up in a drab, prefab 1970s suburb.
When Victor’s beloved pooch, Sparky, meets an untimely end, he puts a lesson from his science class to good use, concocting a laboratory from bits and pieces of attic junk to catch a jolt from a lightning bolt and reanimate the sewn-together canine.
Victor tries to keep his successful experiment a secret from his parents, his classmates and his neighbors, but you can imagine how long that lasts.
Visual nods abound to horror movies of yesteryear, with Goth-ghoulish characters that resemble iconic scary-cinema icons, scenes that reference various ’50s creature features, and a pull-out-the-stops, monster-rama finale.
Woven into the movie’s comedic parody of the familiar Frankenstein story framework, however, is an extremely touching tale of a boy and his dog, one that makes “Frankenweenie” much more than just a dazzling exercise in pop-culture cleverness. All those years ago, when Burton made the original movie, he was inspired by the loss of his own childhood pet.
And boy, does it ever show. It’s hard for any dog lover to watch “Frankenweenie” without feeling a solid tug or two on the heartstrings.
Victor’s “experiment” freaks out the neighborhood, sparks a raid on the local pet cemetery by his classmates who hope to best him in the school science fair, and incites a riot that follows the “village mob” to the climactic windmill setting of the showdown, appropriately enough, of the original “Frankenstein.”
All because Victor couldn’t imagine life without his dog. This puppy tale has its scars and its stitches, but it’s also vibrantly, electrifyingly alive with sweetness.
But Disney may have been right about one thing: It still may be a bit too dark and unsettling, at least during some parts, for the youngest of kids. Sparky still isn’t Snow White.
And Tim Burton clearly wouldn’t have it any other way.
IF YOU GO
DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes