Nostalgic Times Two 

Tim Burton's latest nods to horror heritage and the director's own past.

Victor and Sparky, from  Frankenweenie

Victor and Sparky, from Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie is the second Tim Burton film of the year (following spring's TV adaptation Dark Shadows) and the second animated, 3D horror-comedy about a misfit boy's engagement with the supernatural (following summer's Burton-esque Paranorman) — and it's the better of each pairing.

Set in the small town of New Holland, Frankenweenie is a riff on the Frankenstein story, particularly the definitive 1931 film version of author Mary Shelley's tale, directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures.

Here, Victor Frankenstein is a middle-school-aged boy whose parents fear his faithful dog, Sparky, is his only friend. Victor finds himself torn between two demanding authority figures: a new teacher at school, who urges him to be bold in preparation for the school's science fair, and his father, who insists he balance the science fair with a friend-making attempt at joining the school's baseball team. But things go awry when an overactive Sparky chases a ball into the street during Victor's first game and is killed by a passing car, inspiring young Frankenstein to fulfill the destiny of his moniker via a Rube Goldberg-like construction meant to summon lightning to reanimate Sparky.

Frankenweenie mimics the look of Universal horror classics not just with its rickety attic set-up and a paunchy, creepy, Igor-like sidekick but in the perhaps nervy decision to present the entire film in striking, silvery black and white. The film's use of 3D also works well with the model-based animation, the over-used format becoming less about showy action moments than about enhancing the already two-dimensional quality of the image and giving the figures a pop-up picture-book quality.

While set in a fantastical world, Frankenweenie draws a line between '50s Americana (Victor's mother wears floral-print dresses while vacuuming and reading romance novels) and the present, creating a world where being dark or creepy is less a source of suspicion than being too smart. Forced to defend himself at a town meeting, the new science teacher takes the podium and says, matter-of-factly, "Ladies, gentleman, I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant."

I've long felt that Burton is more art director than storyteller, but that quality works well here, in a richly felt — and richly designed — film that is essentially a catalog of loving, often funny riffs on classic horror movies.

Whale's Frankenstein might be the film's template, but the homages are wide-ranging: from vintage Universal films Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy to modern horror-comedy classic Gremlins, from Godzilla to Bambi Meets Godzilla. The teacher seems modeled after Vincent Price, while Christopher Lee as Dracula appears on the family television.

Adding to the nostalgia is an opening sequence of the family screening a homemade horror short film Victor made using cardboard, toy soldiers, and other household props, with Sparky dressed as his monster protagonist, which seems like Burton looking back at his own artistic origins. Along the same poignant lines, there's voice work here from several old Burton hands who haven't worked with the prolific director in more than a decade: Martin Landau (who last worked with Burton on 1999's Sleepy Hollow), Martin Short (1996's Mars Attacks!), Catherine O'Hara (1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas), and even Winona Ryder (1990's Edward Scissorhands).


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