Beautifully detailed and painstakingly rendered in 3-D, black-and-white, stop-motion animation, "Frankenweenie" is a visual and thematic return to the best Burton has offered in his earliest films, such as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice." And it is a welcome return, given the reheated, unfocused nature of some of his more recent films like "Dark Shadows."
Burton has said he'd always intended for "Frankenweenie" to be a full-length, stop-motion-animation feature, but he didn't have the means; instead, he made a 30-minute, live-action short featuring Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and a young Sofia Coppola (credited as "Domino"). Both films are about the powerful bond between a boy and his dog, one that goes on even after death — a heartrending subject, to be sure, but one that Burton infuses with his trademark mix of lively energy and macabre laughs.
Even then, you could see Burton's sympathetic, protective portrayal of an outsider, an affectionate skewering of the sanctity of suburbia and a deep love of monster movies.
Along those lines, this animated version begins the exact same way as the original: with a 10-year-old boy projecting his latest makeshift horror flick for his parents in the living room. Young Victor ("Charlie St. Cloud" co-star Charlie Tahan) is a loner: a smart, quiet kid whose only real friend is his bubbly bull terrier, Sparky. His mom and dad (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short, two of the many Burton alumni at work here) encourage him to take part in sports and school activities. His next-door neighbor, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), the niece of the town's persnickety mayor (also Short), is his somber, kindred spirit.
Then one day, Sparky runs into the street to chase a ball and gets hit by a car. Victor is understandably devastated. But then he gets an idea while studying the effects of electricity in science class: He could bring Sparky back to life. Martin Landau, who was so great as Bela Lugosi in Burton's "Ed Wood," plays the teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, a fearsome figure with a comically heavy Eastern European accent who is, in actuality, an inspiring, forward-thinking force in his students' lives.
The big, explosive lab scene takes place in the attic and is straight out of "Frankenstein" — which also happens to be his family's last name in one of countless nods to classics of the genre. In Victor's version, he harnesses lightning with the help of every appliance he could grab out of his mom's kitchen, as well as some Christmas lawn decorations, a bicycle and various umbrellas. It's loud and thrilling and frightening all at once, but as is the case in the best of Burton's work, the outcome has a fundamental sweetness.
But once the premise is established in the script from frequent Burton collaborator John August ("Corpse Bride," ''Big Fish"), the story doesn't really go anywhere. Victor keeps trying to hide Sparky in various ways; once the neighborhood kids discover him, they're daring and/or stupid enough to try and pull off the same experiment on their own, with disastrous results.
(Which reminds me: This is really not a movie for little kids. Even before the screeching, flying vampire cat shows up, just the look of the film with its menacing angles and intimidating grown-ups is probably enough to frighten young ones.)
But all of that and more is precisely what makes "Frankenweenie" such a consistent wonder to watch for the rest of us. It's beautifully bizarre, full of characters with hilariously exaggerated features: either they're gangly and emaciated or grotesquely obese. A fluffy white cat named Mr. Whiskers is a frequent scene-stealer, as is a little boy named "E'' Gore whose bulging eyes and creepy, raspy voice are an homage to Peter Lorre.
Revisiting the past — his own, and that of the masters who came before him — seems to have brought this filmmaker's boyish enthusiasm back to life, as well.