Frankenweenie takes writer/director Tim Burton back to his stop-motion roots.
The story of bringing a loved pet back from the dead has a history. It took the shape of a movie long before Burton was a movie maker.
He actually got the idea as a child when his beloved dog died. Like most kids, Burton wished there was a way to bring the dog back to life. In a way, he eventually did. In 1984 -- a year before Burton hit it big with Pee Wee's Big Adventure -- Burton did Frankenweenie as a short.
It wasn't enough. For more than two decades, the imaginative Burton thought the story deserved more. Obviously it does. Phase two of the loving tribute to his dog is one of the year's best movies.
A young, still-in-school Victor Frankenstein lives in a small town. He's a loner whose only friend is his bull terrier, Sparky. The dog has infectious energy. He bounds through the early scenes of the film with tail wagging, chasing balls and loving the hell out of his best friend, Victor.
Then Sparky dies. The dog's death crushes young Victor. Inspired by horror movies and a very strange science teacher, Victor -- who is no science slouch himself -- finds a way to bring Sparky back to life.
Even after being brought back from the dead, Sparky is the only character in the film exhibiting any real sign of life. It is deliberate and effective.
Of course, keeping a secret such as raising your dog from the dead is impossible and like the old horror movie plots that sparked Sparky's story, the revival leads to monstrous and very clever consequences.
Part of my love of Frankenweenie is how it relates to my own childhood. The film is as much a time machine as it is a movie. Childhood and the years on the edge of adolescence have this timelessness to them. Our memories are not in units measured by time. They are grouped in places, people, activities and events.
Burton's film will resonate with all ages. Kids will love it. Adults will love it. Most will relate to its themes. It's particularly special for those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s -- and maybe even the early 1970s -- who grew up with and loved now classic horror movies.
Burton transports all of us back in time to our childhood. Revived are memories of lost pets, the sometimes harsh realization of the reality of life and death, and that unbelievable ability to hang on to hope no matter how overwhelming the odds.
And like Burton, who had an influential teacher who is personified in the film, all have people in our pasts -- teachers, neighbors, religious leaders -- who influenced us and whose advice, comments or teaching helped shape our world and thinking as adults. Burton bundles that inspiration into a science teacher who reminiscent of famed horror film actor Vincent Price.
Creepy Peter Lorre is embodied vocally and in looks by a creepy schoolmate who spills the beans.
Neighborhood friends, school friends, acquaintances, weird kids and even childhood enemies -- people and events you haven't thought about for decades -- are brought to mind. All of this is tucked into the old Frankenstein horror movie concept that takes many of us back to late, late nights in front of the boob tube when we were mesmerized as well as horrified by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and the other horror movie greats from antiquity.
To add flavor, Burton does his movie in black and white.
The on-screen multiple dimensions of most 3D movies are impressive. Most, however, lack character and story depth. You need to see Frankenweenie in 3D if possible but if you can't, Burton's film -- even in ordinary two dimensions -- is rich, and deep and broad, and brilliantly captures the timelessness of youth and an era long lost.
Mr. Movie rating: 5 stars
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder
Rated PG for mature themes. It is playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.