Thursday, October 11, 2012


Oh, to be a fan of Tim Burton now is a tremulous journey.  As anyone how grew up with his child-like wonder and joyously odd sensibility has watched his vision become trademarked as a go-to director for hire as of late, there's a wondrous respite and gleeful refrain in watching Frankenweenie.  One of the filmmakers most personal, most gloriously fun and inventive films in some time, there's a sense of delight and a passionate sense of relief as well.  Adapted from one of Burton's first short films-- incidentally the film that got Burton, an up and comer animator at Disney, fired in 1984-- is a joyful reminder that he still has it in him to concoct wicked, yet gently humane stories with the same graceful off-kilter humor to match his always top-tiered production designs that made a fan out of anyone who came of cinematic age between Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Yet there's an elegance too, to this macabre, black and white stop motion story that should hit the gut on anyone, young or old, who lost something precious to them.  And in that great Burton-ian tradition, he makes the outcast, the dreamer in all of us identify with the meanings behind the grandiose shows he displays, while forever distilling imagination in every frame and keeping his idiosyncratic signatures alive.  Frankenweenie is far and away Tim Burton's grandest feature since 1995's Ed Wood, and a redemptive cinematic ode worthy of celebration.

Harking back to the tales that suit him best and most acutely, Burton is channeling, parodying and paying affectionate homage to the great monster movies of yore.  Victor Frankenstein (dryly and sweetly voiced by Charlie Tahan) is an oddball.  An amateur filmmaker, a kid of science and most dear to him, friend to his loyal dog, Sparky.  His dad (voiced by Martin Short) worries he's friendless and encourages sports over his passions; his mom (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) is as doting as any suburban mother on 1950s sitcoms.  There's so much texture to the early sequences-- including a nicely satirical opening node to the gratuitousness of 3-D (a fixture the animated feature, distributed by Disney utilizes) that starts the film in a winning way.  There's familiar Burton touches, such as the heightened tract suburban houses and off-kilter framing, but there's a refreshing component that this is Burton at his most comfortable, in his most stable wheelhouse, away from the drudgery of billion dollar expectations and haphazard attempts to conform his style onto the stories of others.

As Victor trudges back and forth from school, it's Sparky he's the most engaged with, even as his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) is starting to shape the youthful science prodigy.  There's a naturalism and unsentimental amusement in Sparky, the cuddly schemer and Victor, a masterful Burton-ian creation (those eyes; they're massive!), that goes down familiar territory of mans best friends loyalty, but plays beguilingly sweet.  Disaster strikes the fictional New Holland town, when Sparky is suddenly hit by a car.  Victor, devastated, takes a cue from Mr. Rzykruski, who has just performed a lesson on the powers of electricity and its reviving affects on frogs, as well as his name, decides to bring his friend back to life.  Using the powers of electricity-- New Holland is a mysteriously storm-ridden town, be digs the grave of his beloved Sparky and, in a scene of masterful bravura, revives the pup.  As his namesake suggests, there's certain moral quandaries that play into Frankenweenie, as their must, yet Victor's God-playing role results in such manically gleeful fun; this is a Burton film after all.  And John August's tight screenplay leaves little space for vested lectures or lessons.

Victor's biggest challenges come in the form of his neighbor, the bullying, rotund mayor with prized tulips and a bad attitude (Short supplies his voice), however his bewitchingly odd niece, Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder) is more appealing, as is her poodle, Persephone a nice fit for Sparky.  Other adversaries are the science fair bullies who wage war on Victor upon learning of his discovery, and the creepy Edgar (voiced by Atticus Schaffer) who blackmails Victor into friendship after first learning of Sparky's resurrection.  The sub-plots and supporting characters matter little, as they are one of the films few striking weaknesses-- what stays on track is Victor and the continual love of his dog.  Culminating the film with a fun monster mash plays out trickier, plot-wise, than perhaps was necessary, but affirms the love between boy and pet with such weirdly succinct heart; there's little denying its power.  And that's the grandest power of Burton at the top of his form, finding that melding of his uniquely strange Grand Guignol sensibility with an emotional current that can resonate with anyone.  Frankenweenie does that with such an impeccable sense of craft attached, it's difficult not to be bewitched.  A-

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