Burton's pet project has true spark
Frankenweenie (PG, general release, 87 minutes) Director: Tim Burton Stars: Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau,, Winona Ryder, Martin Short
Tim Burton is a very fortunate fellow. Since breaking though in Hollywood with the ghoulish 1980s comedy Beetlejuice at the comparatively tender age of 30, he's been given a remarkably free rein to explore his pet themes, and has managed to realise unlikely, and at times downright eccentric, projects that no one else would ever have got made.
With his weirdo heroes and dark stop-motion fairytales, he forms part of the American gothic tradition that stretches back to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe.
The thematic through-line in his work is so distinctive it can border on the repetitive, but films like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and the underrated Alice in Wonderland are testament to a remarkable visual imagination.
Frankenweenie is essentially a remake of one of his earliest directorial efforts, a half-hour comic horror film Burton made in 1984 at Disney's concept art department.
Shot in black and white, it told the story of a lonely boy who is so upset by the death of his dog that he tries to bring it back to life.
Disney had commissioned the short as an opener for a cinema re-release of Pinocchio, and were horrified by the finished film.
They fired Burton, which turned out to be the making of him, but the director has always dreamed of remaking the film and finally doing it justice.
This lavish makeover has been in the works since 2005, and although the original was a live action movie, the new Frankenweenie is a lovingly crafted stop-motion animation.
A risky decision perhaps, but an inspired one, because while Burton's playful take on the Frankenstein story might have been too slight to sustain a full-length live-action film, it's just about perfect for a sumptuous gothic cartoon.
Victor Frankenstein is a typical Burton protagonist. An odd and lonely young boy who lives in a slightly sinister version of Norman Rockwell-esque suburbia, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) spends most of his time conducting secret scientific experiments in his parents' attic and has no friends apart from his beloved, plucky dog, Sparky. He is, then, more than usually bereft when poor Sparky buys the farm while chasing an errant baseball across a busy road.
Victor mopes about disconsolately until his wise but forbidding science teacher Mr Rzykruski shows the class how an electric charge will jolt to life the muscles of a dead frog. Inspired, Victor hot foots it to the pet cemetery, disinters old Sparky and embarks on a desperate attempt to reanimate his faithful mutt with the help of a passing electrical storm.
The worry with this film was always that a lovingly remade '80s short would seem stretched thin, and irrelevant.
But Frankenweenie is charming, perfectly paced, amusing, sometimes moving and absolutely beautiful to look at. I'm sure the good folks at Disney tried to dissuade Burton from reshooting the film in black and white, but the crisp monochrome suits his gothic landscape perfectly.
The stop-motion puppets are exquisitely crafted by Mackinnon & Saunders, and Burton and screenwriter John August have created an amusing cast of supporting characters, including several schoolchildren inspired by stock characters from classic 1930s Universal horror films like Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy.
Among the voice cast, Martin Landau stands outs for his enjoyable portrayal of the clipped and sinister Mr Rzykruski, while Martin Short excels playing four different characters. It's a very likeable and witty little film, typical Burton fare but nothing especially wrong with that.
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