'Frankenweenie' is classic Tim Burton

Posted: October 05, 2012

ANYONE CAN squeeze a tear or two out of a boy-and-his-dog story.

Boy and his DEAD dog? That's a job for Tim Burton, who returns to form with "Frankenweenie," a first-rate stop-motion animated 3-D movie adapted from his 1984 short film.

It's quintessential Burton - the tale of an eccentric but well-meaning misfit (think Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington) whose outside-the-box (pine, in this case) ideas and talents are at once alarming and enchanting.

The misfit here is Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), an awkward high-school science geek whose best and only friend is his dog Sparky.

Victor's isolation is a concern to dad, who pushes the gangly pale boy to participate in young manly things like baseball. This Victor does, knocking a ball out of the park and onto the street. Sparky gives chase, the traffic is heavy . . . cut to the pet cemetery.

Victor is inconsolable, until the day his science teacher (modeled on Vincent Price, voiced by Martin Landau) shoots electrons into the limbs of a frog cadaver. A dead leg twitches, and so does an idea in the boy's head.

These are not spoilers - the title is a hybrid of Frankenstein and wiener dog, the boy's name is Victor, you get the drift.

Victor moves ahead with his secret project, and when word leaks out to friends and science fair competitors, it inspires fear, envy and ultimately mimicry - a wrinkle that gives the movie its lively, beastie-strewn third act.

This is the movie's one big concession to the matinee and the multiplex. One of the wonderful and unique things about "Frankenweenie" is its singular mood and tone. It's for the most part a very quiet movie, unusually so, rendered in soft black and whites that turn out to be well-suited to 3-D (though I don't think it will suffer in less-expensive 2-D).

The movie's intimate and quiet spaces allow Burton to give us inventions like Weird Girl - the whisper-voiced albino teen cat fancier (Catherine O'Hara) who believes the things in her pet's litter box foretell the future. And they do!

The movie is full of characters who grow and thrive in this stillness - some modeled after horror-movie icons, some on familiar Burton archetypes and some strange and new.

There have been complaints that "Frankenweenie" retreads too much of the Burton style, but you won't hear them from me. I like the Burton style, the way it blends suburban motifs and macabre imagery as felicitously as a toddler trick-or-treating in a vampire mask.

Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.

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