Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Tim Burton fans rejoice! After years of watered down fare that showed mere flashes of his imaginative spark, the director is back in full force with Frankenweenie, a film of such playful wonder that it’s as if he never lost his way. Adapting his 1984 live-action short to a full-length claymation feature, Burton returns to the core tenets of his prime and succeeds on all levels for nearly all ages. It’s easily his best film since 2003’s Big Fish and his most singular achievement since 1994’s Ed Wood.
Growing up in the manicured suburbia of New Holland, young Victor Frankenstein is a loner who happily spends most of his time with his dog Sparky. The two remain blissful in their isolated existence until one day at school when the unblinking, saucer-eyed Weird Girl shows Victor a cat turd in the shape of a “V.” The excrement is from her like-eyed feline companion, Mr. Whiskers, whom she says dreamed about Victor the night before. As his track record with other classmates shows, when Mr. Whiskers dreams about you (and thereafter poops the first letter of your name), something big will happen to you that day.
That’s some bizarre sh…um, stuff, but precisely the kind of kooky macabre imagery and dark humor on which Burton staked his initial fame. Shot in the same beautiful B&W of his earliest short films, Burton plays with shadows and lighting to great effect, giving Frankenweenie the feel of classic horror cinema. Populating his frames is an assortment of visually appealing characters. There’s the spindly fingers and Chiclit teeth of humpbacked Edgar “E” Gore; Mr. Burgemeister, a bald yet otherwise dead ringer for his “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” namesake; and the catfishy, elongated face of the Vincent Price-like science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (sounds like “rice krispy”).
Seeing these fascinating mugs and the nostalgic world they inhabit brings about such iconic Burton moments as Edward Scissorhands emerging from his corner, Beetlejuice spinning his head, or Jack Skellington singing his lament on Halloween Town’s spiral hill. Yes, parts of Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory recall Burton at his imaginative best, but with the sustained one-of-a-kind sights and sounds of Frankenweenie, viewers may at last stop wondering when he will return to form. That John August’s script elevates the content beyond mere homage is cause for further celebration.
Mr. Whiskers’ fecal premonition indeed comes true when Sparky is hit by a car. Not ready to let go and inspired by Mr. Rzykruski’s lesson on lightning strikes, Victor brings his dog back to life in much the same way as his literary ancestor. Worried at what others would think, Victor keeps Sparky hidden, but when the reanimated pup goes gallivanting out in the neighborhood while Victor is at school, he sets off a chain of events that will forever change the town.
Throughout these adventures, Burton’s distinct gothic style reigns supreme, ratcheting up the fantastic until it culminates in a stretch that maniacally pushes the film beyond its PG rating and rivals Cabin in the Woods’ insane finale. The handmade attention given to Frankenweenie’s scenes, however, places it in a category all its own. Stop-motion filmmaking may be long, tedious work, but under Burton’s direction, it exudes a power that computer graphics can never capture. Factor in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Henry Selick’s Coraline, and the consistent charm of Aardman Studios, and this rare art form is in an unlikely but welcome revival. It’s only right that one of its innovators is still pushing the format forward.
Burton’s return to his roots is not just one of style and tone, but extends to his collaborators as well. Peak film alums Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Landau all lend their gifted voices, as does Martin Short, who was in Mars Attacks but would have fit in well with an earlier work. Along with Danny Elfman scoring at his eerie child choir best, Frankenweenie stands as a celebration of Burton’s past accomplishments and an indication that he can still deliver the goods. It may have taken a while for him to regain his focus, but after a film this spectacular, better late than never.
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.
Frankenweenie is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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