Combustible Celluloid
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With: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Christopher Lee, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny
Written by: John August, based on a story by Tim Burton, Leonard Ripps
Directed by: Tim Burton
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images and action
Running Time: 87
Date: 14/12/1984

Frankenweenie (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tails from the Crypt

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Easily his best movie since Big Fish, Tim Burton's black-and-white, stop-motion animated Frankenweenie is not a new idea. Frankenweenie already exists as a live-action short film, which Burton made while working at Disney all the way back in 1984.

For his new feature, he went back to his original notes and sketches. In doing so, he seems to have re-discovered his passion for filmmaking.

In his best early films, like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Burton's direction yielded some memorably warm-hearted characters. Lately, however, it has been clear that Burton's films have been more designed than directed.

The recent Dark Shadows could have been a grand soap opera that recaptured some of that early passion, but instead it wasted its beautiful backgrounds on silly fish-out-of-water jokes.

Now comes young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), the humble hero of Frankenweenie. Victor loves his dog, Sparky, so much that -- after Sparky fatally chases a baseball into the street -- Victor defies the laws of nature to bring him back to life.

Burton underlines this theme as Victor's classmates -- each an eager competitor in a school science fair -- discover his secret and try to create bigger and more amazing creatures. These new monsters, a cat-bat, a huge Godzilla-like turtle (whose name is "Shelley"), Sea Monkeys, etc., all rampage out of control, while Sparky seems perfectly normal. The answer? Love.

It helps that the happy, barky dog sounds employed for Sparky are so lovable.

Additionally, Burton shows a kind of fatherly affection for Victor, who could be a representation of Burton himself, a socially uncertain misfit, withdrawn into science and/or science fiction.

Aside from its potent, moody shadowy black-and-white cinematography, Frankenweenie is a veritable handbook of sci-fi and horror movie references, in which Burton clearly takes a kind of nostalgic comfort.

Even his voice cast -- Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder -- are all Burton veterans from the early days. (Only Mr. Depp -- the star of eight Burton films -- is conspicuously absent.)

Indeed, the gruesome and/or theological aspects of Frankenstein -- the idea of man creating man -- aren't really here.

Burton's goal with Frankenweenie is to have a good, spooky time with some old friends.

If parents balked at taking their children to the equally good ParaNorman last summer, then Frankenweenie should hopefully provide friendlier Halloween fare.

Meanwhile, here's hoping that, like Frankenweenie himself, Burton's enthusiasm is similarly resurrected.

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