"Did you love your experiment?"
A cadaverous science teacher Mr. Ryzkruski (voiced by Martin Landau) asks this disturbing question of his brilliant pupil Victor.
The teacher does not know Victor has, in secret, stitched together and revived from the dead his beloved dog Sparky. But he ascertains that a second experiment, forced on Victor by a blackmailing schoolmate, met with a less successful result because Victor felt no love. "The variables changed," the teacher concludes.
The exchange might be a summary of director Tim Burton's recent career. If past cinematic experiments such as Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland have been unsatisfying, it may be because Burton wasn't feeling the love.
The variables have changed with Frankenweenie, a stop-motion animated feature based on a live-action short film Burton made as an upstart young director in 1984.
The movie's perverse premise sees Burton in his gothic comfort zone: children playing with dead things.
Victor (emotively voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a brilliant loner kid in his neat suburban neighbourhood, making monster movies starring Sparky and a cast of inanimate action figures. Alas, a car accident befalls the beloved dog.
So when the science teacher demonstrates how electricity can cause the muscles of a dead frog to move (a delightfully creepy scene), Victor is inspired to hook up his dead dog up to a lightning bolt and revive Sparky with the spark of life.
Victor tries to keep his revived dog's existence a secret from his parents (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short), but soon a handful of strange schoolmates want to get in on the revival action, including a Boris Karloff-like dude named Nassor and the wide-eyed Weird Girl (O'Hara again), who can read the litter box of her cat, Mr. Whiskers, the way ancient mystics could read the entrails of sacrificial goats.
Soon, the painstakingly neat town of New Holland is being befouled by a horde of revived mutant pets on a rampage.
Scripted by John August, the movie offers a satiric riff on the anti-intellectual zeitgeist of contemporary science-haters. It's not long before they form a torch-bearing mob in the manner of their cultural antecedents found in old Frankenstein movies.
Visually, it's delightful, with Burton daring to film in black and white -- albeit 3D black and white -- in tribute to the beautiful old horror movies that inspired it. The marvellous stop-motion dolls, based on Burton's hand-drawn designs, offer shout-outs to horror movies of the past, including the Vincent Price-like science teacher, a Bride of Frankenstein poodle and an Igor-like stooge.
The unfortunate variable in this experiment is that Burton has trod this ground too frequently as creative producer of stop-motion films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Compared to the more innovative kiddie-horror offering ParaNorman, Frankenweenie feels less fresh.
But as with its titular dead pup, just because it's not fresh doesn't mean it's not, in its way, decidedly lovable.
Selected excerpts from reviews of Frankenweenie.
It's all perfectly entertaining, but never really reaches the heights of hilarity, perhaps because everything about the plot is underdeveloped.
-- Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic
Revisiting the past -- his own, and that of the masters who came before him -- seems to have brought this filmmaker's boyish enthusiasm back to life, as well.
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
If dark and twisted is how you like your Burton movies, you're in luck.
-- Randy Myers, San Jose Mercury News
Tight and brief, hitting all the marks you'd expect from an animated kid's film, and enlivened by Burton's visual style. The man should make more small movies like this one.
-- Chris Packham, Village Voice
It's the best thing with Burton's name on it in the past five years.
-- William Goss, Film.com
What still eludes Burton is the ability to deepen the superficial allure of his visions.
-- Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
Amusing from beginning to end, a heartwarming relationship at its core, and its love for classic horror worn on its sleeve, Frankenweenie is one of Tim Burton's best.
-- Chris Sawin, Examiner.com
Perfectly poised for a Halloween release, I dare say Frankenweenie is an instant classic.
-- Staci Layne Wilson, Horror.com
Boy, it's nice to have Tim Burton back... A beautiful movie... it will be quite threatening to some grown-ups, but those are the best kinds of kids movies.
-- Fred Topel, CraveOnline
Combining several of his favourite concepts, including a loving tribute to the 1931 classic, Tim Burton has made one of his most joyous works in years.
-- Emanuel Levy, EmanuelLevy.Com
The film is diverting fun in fits and starts but can't quite achieve a coherent whole.
-- Tim Grierson, Screen International
-- Compiled by Shane Minkin