Friday, October 19, 2012

Frankenweenie

A macabre, stop-motion animated delight, Frankenweenie is about as Tim Burton as Tim Burton gets. Adapted from his 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie tempers its dark subject matter with humor and sweetness, as most of Burton’s best films do. Beautifully animated, richly imagined, and thoroughly charming, here is Tim Burton’s best film in years.

Schoolboy Victor Frankenstein spends his free time making home movies and playing with his dog, Sparky. He also takes a special interest in science thanks to an enthusiastic and eccentric teacher. After Sparky runs into the street chasing a baseball and is hit by a car, Victor hatches a plan to resurrect his dog through a late-night science experiment.

Though Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a major success at the box office, it didn’t resonate with me. Many Burton fans (myself included) complained that it wasn’t quirky and strange enough, which seemed impossible given the source material. Tim Burton is an animator at heart, and he’s at his best and most creative when animating an original story. Frankenweenie marks a grand return to form. The sets are quaint and haunting at once, and every character has a defined, memorable look. Victor’s fellow students are equal parts creepy and hilarious. Victor’s science teacher has an impossibly long face and evokes Vincent Price, one of Burton’s formative childhood icons.

Stop-motion animation has always amazed me. It’s a painstaking, meticulous process, and the end result is entirely unique. Computer generated images boast more fluidity and realism, but that cuts both ways, because stop-motion’s jerky movements cast everything in an otherworldly light. Visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts (1968), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)) was a master of stop motion, and his effects hold up so well in part because they don’t look real, and they never did; they’re mysterious and charming. Burton’s three stop-motion animated features (The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005), and now Frankenweenie) make perfect use of the medium because the stories lean heavily on mystical creatures and fantasy worlds. Burton understands and exploits the medium’s strengths, and he enhances the aesthetic by filming in black and white, which has its own inherent magic.

Sparky comes to life through amazing puppetry. All of the characters do, but Sparky behaves uncannily like a real dog, which helps us care about him early on. Even in his resurrected, zombie form, the title character is an adorable dog. Other animals come into play later on, and again, each character (human and animal) behaves distinctly and memorably. The voice actors do fine work, but much of the emotion comes through quiet moments where the animators were the only actors.

Surprisingly, Frankenweenie is only the second feature film to be both written and directed by Tim Burton; the other is Edward Scissorhands (1990) (The Nightmare Before Christmas carries a strong Burton influence, but he handed the actual direction over to his friend and fellow animator Henry Selick, as Burton was preoccupied with Batman Returns at the time). Watching Frankenweenie, I was reminded that for all of his dark, gothic style, Tim Burton has a great sense of humor. I smiled through most of the movie and laughed out loud more than once. Burton mixes elements traditionally reserved for horror with the wonder and magic of children’s stories, something I’ve always loved about his movies. Fans of Burton’s unique style will not be disappointed here. Frankenweenie finds the right balance of charm, creepiness and fun, and the animation consistently delights.




For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action

Frankenweenie gets a bit scary in its last act. A few animals undergo transformations, including a cat/bat hybrid that’s a little unsettling. One monster ends up impaled. Sparky’s death (before he resurrects as the title character) occurs tastefully offscreen, but the theme of death and loss might be a bit much for younger viewers. I think 10+ kids (or kids who enjoy slightly darker humor) will eat this up.

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