In the same spurting vein as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride,” Tim Burton’s delightful “Frankenweenie” stitches together macabre comedy and ticklish horror.
With stop-motion 3-D animation that feels both handcrafted and elegant, it tells the tale of Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), one of Burton’s patented lonely-boy heroes. The lad’s introversion and science geekery mark him as an oddball in his sunny, conformist suburb of New Holland. His dad (Martin Short) is proud but perturbed by Victor’s zeal for directing back-yard creature features. “I don’t want him to turn out, you know, weird,” he frets, though that horse has clearly escaped the barn.
The mass-produced uniformity of the housing development radiates bright, bland despair. While his Goth neighbor, Elsa (Winona Ryder), likes him, Victor’s only pal is his mutt Sparky, a rat-shaped creature with a jelly bean nose and huge goggle eyes. When Sparky runs afoul of a moving car, Victor builds an attic laboratory to reanimate him. The work space is a clever homage to “Frankenstein’s” spectacularly elaborate art deco lab, complete with a platform that lifts Sparky skyward to be zapped by lightning bolts. Sparky returns, stitched together but frisky as ever, his tail still wagging after it falls off.
Envious classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), with the posture of a comma and the nasal diction of a junior Peter Lorre, discovers that Victor has tampered with natural law, and will therefore win the school science competition. He blackmails Victor, spreading the secret among his pals, who create monstrosities that recall the invisible man, malicious gremlins and Japan’s towering turtle Gamera.
Fans of old horror films and Burton’s work will find visual quotations in every fastidiously designed frame. The town’s portly mayor could have played the burgomaster in a 1930s Universal horror film, and Victor’s immigrant science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) is a ringer for Vincent Price.
Thanks to a clever script by Burton’s longtime collaborator John August, “Frankenweenie” does more than turn the horror classic on its squared-off head. It digs deep into the themes that made James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece such an indelible experience. Most horror-movie villains simply frighten the audience. Frankenstein’s monster was misunderstood, childish, sympathetic, an involuntary outcast who simply wanted to be loved. So is Sparky, his spindly master Victor, and possibly Burton himself, who calls making movies “an expensive form of therapy for me.” Burton keeps telling variations of this story over and over again. In “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and this one, he nails it.
The story brims with self-parody, social satire, horror, nostalgia, wit and emotional insight, with Burton keeping all the plates spinning. Landau invests surprising subtleties of emotion in his Transylvanian-sounding science teacher, firing subversive zingers at thickwits who welcome the comforts that science provides “but not the questions it asks.” Shaffer’s wheezy, whiny vocal performance is so delirious I beamed every time his character appeared.
“Frankenweenie” is a welcome rebound for Burton after the poorly paced excesses of “Dark Shadows.” He’s got his spark back.