Tim Burton, cinematic champion of weirdos, outsiders and overlooked geniuses, has long been stitching together broken psyches. Over the years he’s taken detours for big-budget reprises such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Planet of the Apes,” some a better fit than others. In contrast, “Frankenweenie,” his new animated riff on horror classics about a boy with a scientific bent resurrecting his pet dog, feels very much a return to form.
Actually it’s more like the filmmaker has come home, kicked up his feet and done exactly as he wants in this love letter to the original “Frankenstein” — cue thunder and lightning. Indeed, an unabashed affection for the entire genre electrifies every labor-intensive, stop-motion move that young Victor (Charlie Tahan), his hopelessly devoted bull terrier Sparky and the rest of this eccentric collection of characters make.
The artistry reaches absolute perfection. “Frankenweenie’s” characters are a true reflection of the darkly ironic mind of the director and the film overall is a paean to the meticulous craft of stop-motion, a process so difficult and demanding, you must love it to do it, and Burton has never done it better. Even his decision to go decisively black-and-white is made intriguingly vibrant with the addition of 3-D. It’s the story that poses some problems.
There are so many horror auteurs Burton wants to thank that the film is absolutely bursting at the seams with knowing nods.
Victor’s parents are the Frankensteins (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short doing multiple voices). There is an inspiring science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who looks and sounds suspiciously like Vincent Price. Among Victor’s few friends is Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), who has a hunch on his back and the cloying way of Bela Lugosi in “Dracula” circa 1931. Mayor Burgemeister, ahem, lives next door with his niece Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), whose poodle Persephone has a Madeline Kahn in “Young Frankenstein"-styled pouf. I won’t go on, but the director does, making it far too easy to get lost in the allusions.
A school science fair and an unfortunate accident that involves Sparky, a ball and a car, are what ignite the reanimation idea in the first place. Victor can’t imagine life without his best friend, so what’s a boy to do?
A midnight trip to retrieve Sparky from the pet cemetery, a massive thunderstorm, an elaborate generating system constructed from Mom’s kitchen appliances, a few bolts of lightning, and bang, Sparky is back in barking business.
When Victor’s nerd competitors at school get a whiff of what he’s done, suddenly every 10-year-old in town wants to get into the reanimating game. All manner of monsters are born, all sorts of pets are supercharged and supersized. And like a scene out of “Godzilla,” someone has to save the day. Nearly every beat has been dug up from horror films past.
Burton is credited with the idea, which he first sketched out years ago for a 1984 short that also carried the “Frankenweenie” name. Frequent Burton collaborator John August gets credit for the screenplay, which was based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps, who co-wrote the ’84 short with the filmmaker. August’s collaboration on the lively and lovely “Corpse Bride” and his adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were more satisfying.
Now to the genuinely genius side of the film. Burton’s go-to guy for music, the marvelous Danny Elfman, has certainly done his part with a devilishly fun score. But it’s the characters who are so winsome and so winning. They have that signature Burton style — stick-thin limbs that give an elegance to the smallest gestures, topped by heads that have the look of an elongated egg. The faces are dominated by golf-ball-sized eyes, a mere pinch of a nose and mouths that are so individualized and personality-infused that they become their own graphic talking point.
Though Burton has said he chose to go black-and-white as part of the homage to those earlier films, in truth the filmmaker tends to favor muted shades of gray. That slightly somber palette colors everything he does whether he’s working in live action like his iconic “Edward Scissorhands” or in animation; his Oscar-nominated “Corpse Bride” had the barest hints of color. Even the rainbow of “Alice in Wonderland” had a softness to it.
The mutedness serves the moodiness you find in the stories he tells. What is masterful about all the shading and shadows is that it also becomes a way to lighten things up at precisely the right moment and often enchantingly — the final scene in “Corpse Bride” with its cloud of butterflies, nearly every scene in “Alice in Wonderland.” He has used that tonality deftly here, it keeps “Frankenweenie” visually stunning and the sensibility light. It’s too bad the tale, like Sparky’s wagging appendage, keeps falling off.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images and action
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: In general release