In 1984, the then more-or-less unknown Tim Burton created a live action short called Frankenweenie about a boy who re-animates his dead dog. Mad at Burton for spending money on a project they deemed too scary for children, Disney fired the director. Luckily for Burton, the project caught the eye of actor Paul Reubens who chose Burton to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the film that ultimately launched Burton's now hugely successful career.
Letting bygones be bygones, Burton has long since re-teamed with the Disney (remember, Alice in Wonderland made, I believe, two-hundred trillion dollars worldwide). Now, nearly thirty years later and after slapping some stop-motion on the concept, Disney is all in favor of Frankenweenie. Roughly forty million dollars worth of budget in favor.
This stop-motion realization of Burton's short follows much of the same story, and even includes some of the same shots. Victor Frankenstein is a boy who loves his dog, Sparky. When Victor isn't at school, he's making sci-fi/horror movies, in which Sparky is the star. His parents are his audience, and they have become concerned about Victor's lack of friends and the fact that Victor is not outgoing. They make a deal: Victor can participate in the upcoming science fair (promoted by a strange yet enthusiastic new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski) if he also participates in the local little league.
After an omen in the form of cat poop, Sparky is hit by a car and killed at one of Victor's games. Devastated, Victor is intrigued when Mr. Rzykruski demonstrates the effect of electricity on dead animals. With the help of one of the town's frequent storms, Victor brings Sparky back to life.
The second stop-motion horror homage to be released in the past couple months, Frankenweenie is different enough in style and approach to stand apart from ParaNorman, even though the two films are similar in many respects. Whereas ParaNorman relied on impressive, vibrant sets, the youthful energy of its lovable characters, and some well-incorporated CGI, Frankenweenie is grounded in Burton's signature aesthetic. The characters are typically odd, the sets are simpler, and the whole thing is pervaded by that melancholy tone that almost all of Burton's films possess.
The craftsmanship and the care that goes into stop-motion is still unquestionably there, and the vocal talents of Martin Short, Martin Landau, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder and others are perfectly tailored to the individual characters. Perhaps the most interesting visual aspect of the movie is what Burton does with lighting and shading in the entirely black and white world. Flashlights, televisions, street lamps shrouded in fog, vehicle headlights etc., all help to further the tone. Even the way sunlight falls on the students and Mr. Rzykruski through the classroom window accomplishes this fairly well.
At its core, Frankenweenie is a loving nod to the horror films that inspired Burton, and even to some of his own films as well. There is hardly a character, name, or setting that doesn't reference a past classic, and certain sequences are almost directly lifted. But when you consider the generalized story and the title, that isn't a surprise. The underlying themes Frankenweenie presents are, in the end, handled much more subtly than those in ParaNorman. But the unique and bizarre behavior of the characters (although Victor is certainly the most agreeable) leads these themes, although worthwhile, to hit with a bit less emotional impact.