‘Frankenweenie’ one of Burton’s best

Article Published: Oct. 11, 2012 | Modified: Oct. 11, 2012
‘Frankenweenie’ one of Burton’s best

Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) pets his recently reanimated pup, Sparky.

“Frankenweenie” is the kind of movie that makes you want to go home and hug your dog.

If you don’t have one, find one. Your friends will understand, although the folks at the Humane Society might be a bit confused.

For anyone who’s loved and lost a canine companion in their lifetime, director Tim Burton’s (“Beetlejuice”) stop-motion animated comedy will strike a bittersweet chord. As with most of his films, Burton’s trademarked flair for visuals and playfully macabre atmosphere are present and accounted for, but returning to center stage is something his recent films have been lacking – heart.

Sure, they’re chock-full of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and most are still entertaining, but they lack those crucial elements that make them distinctly Burton. Style trumped substance, weird soon became normal, and computer-generated animation soiled it all.

“Frankenweenie” marks Burton’s return to form and his roots – literally. Based on a short film he made in 1984, it’s rich in style and substance, putting the story, rather than the aesthetic, at the forefront, allowing the director to do what he does best – tell a tale.

Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan, “Charlie St. Cloud”) lives happily in suburbia. He hasn’t any friends, but for one – his playful and devoted bull terrier, Sparky. They’re inseparable, even making homemade B-grade monster movies, with a hilariously costumed Sparky as said monster.

Victor’s parents (voiced by Martin Short, “Three Amigos,” and Catherine O’Hara, “A Mighty Wind”), however, are concerned for his social well-being. They can’t deny that Victor’s at his happiest with Sparky, but realize he must have human friends, as well. This is made all the more evident when tragedy befalls the Frankenstein family – Sparky’s hit by a car.

A shattered Victor, however, is inspired by his Vincent Price-esque science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Laundau, “Ed Wood”), and makes a desperate attempt to resurrect his foregone furry friend, taking advantage of the unusually frequent lightning storms that have befallen the town. To his surprise – and subsequent joy – it works.

Sure, his tail flies off when he wags it, and maybe he springs a leak when drinking water, but Sparky’s back, playful, curious and fun-loving as ever. Victor realizes, however, that he’ll have to keep this secret. Others just wouldn’t understand, including his parents, classmates and loner neighbor (sort of a proto-Lydia Dietz from “Beetlejuice”) Elsa (voiced by Winona Ryder, “Beetlejuice,” go figure). They just wouldn’t understand, he reasons, much in the same way they don’t understand him.

Needless to say, however, his secret gets out, and then the mayhem begins.

With “Frankenweenie,” Burton gleefully celebrates the classic Universal and Hammer horror films – and staples – of yesteryear. Shot in atmospheric black and white, yet still presented in wonderfully effective 3-D, it’s a ghoulish love letter to classic horror. The gang’s all here – the mad scientist, the angry mob, a misunderstood “monster,” and some truly hilarious archetypes, namely Victor’s classmates.

One of Burton’s strong suits is character, and he nails it with this cast. The voice work is dead on, with particular kudos going to Landau, whose character’s attempt to put parents at ease – by calling them ignorant and fearful of science – is brilliant.

Victor’s classmates, however, nearly steal the show, particularly E. Gore (voiced by Atticus Shaffer, “Hancock”), obviously modeled after the hunchbacked, drooling manservant, and Toshiaki (voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao, “Battle Los Angeles”), inspired by the calculated Asian mad scientist, a la Dr. No of “James Bond” fame.

At the center of it all, though, is Sparky. The expert animation (or re-animation, in this case) captures this pup’s personality and those “aww-inducing” canine mannerisms. Although animated and cartoonishly exaggerated, these characters feel more real, fleshed-out and identifiable than any of those in Burton’s more recent films.

Set design is also top-notch, with the filmmakers striving for a distinctly “Edward Scissorhands” take on suburbia, contrasting with a fair share of gothic imagery and horror film iconography, like Burton’s comically macabre take on a pet cemetery (for instance, a tombstone reading, “Goodbye Kitty”).

The director’s tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but his heart is finally back in the right place.
“Frankenweenie,” rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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