As a general rule, a movie reviewer doesn’t get to use the words “heartfelt” and “horror” in the same sentence but here it is: “Frankenweenie” is Tim Burton’s heartfelt homage to the daring and innocence of horror films from the 1930s into the postwar era by the likes of James Whale, Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price.
This is a glorious, visually sumptuous stop-motion, black-and-white animated film in 3D that kids will see and relate to on one level while adults (or at least those who are cine-literate) will read it on a completely different level.
For those keeping score to this point, it’s the best animated film of the year.
The fantastical world of Tim Burton contains many realms. “Frankenweenie” belongs to the realm of nostalgia, love and loss. It’s about a boy who loses his precious dog to death and seeks to bring him back through reanimation. But it’s also about young Tim Burton and the horror films he loved as a child and reclaims here with such naked joy and unreserved love for the craftsmanship of those vintage movies.
The film mischievously builds from its small-town setting and intimate story of a boy, his dog and the school and neighborhood of an imagined childhood toward a climatic act that sends monsters roaring through homes and streets with the same devilish destruction caused by title creators in Joe Dante’s 1984 “Gremlins.”
That film was a tongue-in-cheek slap-stick take on old horror films. The difference here is Burton’s undisguised love of the people, creatures and even the de rigueur sequences — the scientist in his lab gone amok with wires, coils, instruments and feverish energy, the hysteria of frightened people, the townfolks turned into a rabid mob.
Burton had the vision for such a stop-motion film many years ago, but all he was able to do was make a live-action short, also called “Frankenweenie,” for Disney in 1984.
Pulling out some of his original drawings for that vision and working again with team Disney but for the first time on an animated feature, Burton realizes his dream.
In this reimagined ’30s horror film, Frankenstein is a modern-day boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) who resurrects his beloved Sparky by harnessing one of the many electrical storms that plague the town of New Holland via makeshift kites and his mom’s kitchen appliances.
The weird Eastern European-accented science teacher who inspires the idea, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau in top form), pays tribute to Vincent Price with a model/puppet that resembles the late master of horror film acting.
(This too is autobiographical for Burton cast Price as the Inventor in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), the actor’s last appearances in a feature film. And using Landau as the voice actor reminds one of the Oscar he won in Burton’s “Ed Wood.”)
>Victor’s school mates bring together elements from the many characters in creature horror — Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), a straggle-toothed, friendless youngster with spindly limbs and hunched back, and Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), the sad-eyed girl next door with the poodle that sparks Sparky’s interest.
Nassor (Martin Short, who voices three characters) is a dark, intense kid determined to win a science project contest. Toshiaki (James Hirokyuki Liao) is every power mad scientist while Bob (Robert Capron), a momma’s boy, is ever at Toshiaki’s command.
Then there’s Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara, who also does three character voices), who sees signs and portents in the poop from her cat, Mr. Whiskers.
Victor tries to keep the lid on his successful Sparky experiment but attracts the unwanted attention of Edgar. This in turn allows rumors to spread and draws in these shadowy figures from Mr. Rzykruski’s science class.
More reanimation projects develop including a turtle that becomes a new Godzilla, a mummy hamster nicknamed Colossus, a rat that turns into a were-rat, sea creatures dumped into a swimming pool and a vampire cat that through the magic of electricity crosses a dead bat with — Mr. Whiskers.
These hilariously absurd reanimation sequences catch out vintage horror on the sheer silliness of its formulas but with such affection that these (deliberately) have no satirical edge.
Each of these puppets represents an ingenious collaboration between mad-scientist Burton and the sculptors who created the many puppets from his character sketches.
To go with these production designer Rick Heinrich opts for ’50s modernist houses and streets with straight clear lines along with a New Holland windmill that reaches back perhaps to the town’s founding fathers — the site of the film’s climatic sequence.
The film feels handmade and, of course, literally it is. But more than that, you sense Tim Burton hovering over every one of his creations, attentive to the play of shadows and light, the emotions people and creatures go through and the shifting moods through every scene.
Since any kind of animation takes hundreds of artists, it’s amazing that this film can feel so intimate. Even its big action sequences remind you of those mornings as a youngster when you played with puppets and toys in your bed before the rest of the family was up.
Peter Sorg’s cinematography — this is the first animated feature ever made in black and white — works from a pleasing palette of many shades of grays and off-whites between the stark blacks and whites.
This gives depth far beyond the 3D and adds intensity and emotions to the story. It also harkens back to Burton’s last great black-and-white’er, “Ed Wood” (1994), never fully appreciated by audiences at the time.
I don’t think such a fate will befall “Frankenweenie.” It should be instantly recognized as a wonderful film.
Opens: October 5, 2012 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Tim Burton Animation Co.
Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder, Robert Capron, James Hiroyuki Liao, Conchata Ferrell
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John August
Based on a screenplay by: Lenny Ripps
Based on an original idea by: Tim Burton
Producers: Tim Burton, Allison Abbate
Executive producer: Don Hahn
Director of photography: Peter Sorg
Production designer: Rick Heinrich
Animation director: Trey Thomas
Puppet characters designed and created by: MacKinnon & Saunders
Music: Dany Elfman
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Mark Solomon
PG rating, 87 minutes