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Old dog with magical new tricks

February 17. 2013 7:54AM

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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 conformist suburb. 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. 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.

An envious classmate 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 fastidious frame.

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.

if you go

What: "Frankenweenie"

Starring: voices of Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau.

Directed by: Tim Burton

Running time: 87 minutes

Rated: PG for scary images

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