A charming tale of love, loss and Sparky
The pain of losing a loved one leaves an indelible mark on the hardest heart. Frankenweenie is a charming and impeccably crafted stop-motion animation about a lonely boy who cannot bear the loss of his pet dog.
So the ingenious tyke re-animates the deceased pooch with a lightning bolt a la Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, blind to the repercussions of meddling with Mother Nature.
Writer-director Tim Burton has dealt with the pain of grief and solitude before, most powerfully in Edward Scissorhands – another haunting fable about a misfit out of step with his off-kilter surroundings.
Frankenweenie shares the same screen heroine, Winona Ryder, and the spirit of Edward's creator Vincent Price lives on in the striking, sculpted features of a high school science teacher, whose class demonstration with electricity and frog's legs sows the seeds of this picture's macabre plan.
Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is an outcast in the sleepy community of New Holland, where he lives with his parents (Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara).
His only friend is the family's bull terrier Sparky, who has a crush on Persephone, the pampered black poodle that lives next door with Victor's classmate Elsa Van Helsing (Ryder).
When tragedy strikes and Sparky is laid to rest in the pet cemetery, Victor is plunged into despair. Then teacher Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau) plants the seed of an outlandish idea.
'Science is not good or bad, Victor, but it can be used both ways,' counsels Mr Rzykruski.
In the dead of night, the boy digs up Sparky, constructs a machine to harness lightning and the dog is reborn, albeit with a tendency to lose his decaying tail.
Victor doesn't care – he has his best friend back – and he keeps the pet hidden from prying eyes, including his parents.
Once classmates Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), Bob (Robert Capron) and Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) discover Victor's breakthrough, they plot similar experiments with their pets. Frankenweenie looks stunning, captured in eye-popping 3D. The black-and-white visuals are crisp and every frame is peppered with horror references and in-jokes, such as the white streaks in Persephone's fur, which recalls Elsa Lanchester's iconic appearance in The Bride Of Frankenstein.
There are nods and winks to Gremlins and Godzilla, plus a torch-wielding showdown that embraces Mary Shelley with gusto.
Vocal performances are strong from Tahan's moving portrayal of a boy, who tearfully tells his parents, 'I don't want (Sparky) in my heart, I want him here with me', to O'Hara's ethereal whisper as the weird girl, whose cat Mr Whisker's foretells doom in his alphabet-shaped droppings.
John August's script tugs the heartstrings without ever being cloying and the grand finale is orchestrated at a brilliant, breathless pace.