Release Date: 17 October 2012 (UK)
Director: Tim Burton
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Starring: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Charlie Tahan (Voices)
Screening Reviewed: European Premiere/London Film Festival Opening Gala
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
It's difficult to have not felt repeatedly disappointed with the output of Tim Burton of late - in particular his most recent releases Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland seemed to have lost much of his original edge and flair in favour of more generic, CG-fuelled franchise fare. There was imagination, to be sure, but nothing that felt inspired, personal or quintessentially Burton-esque. They seemed products of a director no longer so sure of his own creativity and ideas, a bowing to a more commercially driven and stereotypical ideology. And as celebrated as some of his pairings with Johnny Depp have been, and the given versatility of Depp as an actor, it was all threatening to become a bit formulaic and stale.
Thankfully, Frankenweenie brings Burton back to his quirky and inventive best, re-igniting that spark of both wonder and heart that made some of his finest offerings such as Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish so original and great. From the gothic re-imagining of the Disney Cinderella Castle logo opening, a bold reminder of the studio now championing a protege they previously were unsure what to do with, through to a wonderfully mischievious and horror-fuelled B-movie finale, this is a characterful return to form that washes away any troubling memories of recent misfires.
In many ways it is unsurprising that Frankenweenie is so evocative and reminiscent of Burton's earlier works in tone and quality, inspired as it is by a live action short film of the same name he made back in the early days of his career at Disney. At the time considered something of an oddity within the studio, and suffering from the lull of the Fox and the Hound/Black Cauldron era, the bigwigs at the House of Mouse were unsure of what to do with the eccentric, unconventional filmmaker they had on their hands, and certainly bemused by and baffled over how to sell or market his early shorts (Frankenweenie along with the Vincent-Price-inspired Vincent). Now, almost 30 years later, Disney executive Don Hahn, eager to atone for Disney's creative oversights (or more likely seeking to recapture the recent financial success of Burton's Alice in Wonderland) completed their about-turn by asking a now more proven Burton to complete the Frankenweenie story as a fully realised, and animated, feature-length release.
Naturally, the original short film was going to need elaborating upon, and a raft of oddball supporting characters and subplots have been drafted in to flesh out the tale, but at it’s core Frankenweenie thankfully remains a tender buddy movie about a lonely boy, Victor Frankenstein, seeking to bring his recently departed dog back to life. For a filmmaker who is frequently identified as having a penchant for the dark and macabre (something which Burton himself believes is inaccurate and ignorant of the warmth and lightness of touch much of his back catalogue demonstrates) Frankenweenie is a much more evenly handled balance of horror-lite homage mixed with a much warmer and more family-friendly approach that runs throughout. There are plenty of references and knowing winks to the horror genre from the offset, some more obvious and intentional than others, but fortunately these are never leant on too heavily or necessary for an appreciation of the story and characters. It’s a cliche to label a film as having ‘something for everyone’ yet the humour throughout is generally universal and inoffensive, born of character or the occasional bit of slapstick and visual invention, and the brilliantly realised cast of characters (some of whom are capable of eliciting laughs from their designs alone) and familiar yet endearing story that isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself helps round out Burton’s most complete and satisfying outing in almost a decade.
The additional decision to realise Frankenweenie through stop motion animation is the perfect fit for the director and story being told, thankfully retaining the original short’s black-and-white aesthetic but introducing the more heightened design stylings of the likes of Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. Distinctive and yet instantly recognisable and never anything less than gorgeous to look at, the artistry and design work on hand is stunning throughout and helps lend the film that indefinable tangible quality that only stop-motion can provide. Burton has professed his love for the art form, and this passion and enthusiasm can be felt throughout with exceptional animation and attention to detail; a moment of solemn tenderness as a mother comforts her grieving son, an over-zealous science teacher (with a brilliantly obtuse name the characters simplify to ‘Mr Rice Krispies’) hilariously illustrating the wonders of lightning and nature in almost Shakespearean fashion, through to the utterly convincing and wonderfully endearing behaviour and nuances of the film’s canine characters. Each puppet and character exudes life, charisma and performance, and it is here that Burton’s real work as a creative Frankenstein is at it’s peak - both he and his team of animators have truly breathed life and soul into these puppets and the world they inhabit. The inclusion of 3D couples nicely with the black and white visuals and excellent artistry on display to create a consistently impressive and gorgeous animated outing, though as always the impact of it being included, despite Burton professing 3D to be one of the key allures behind his decision to embark on this remake, is never as crucial or contributory as the industry likes to profess it to be.
The voice cast assembled do excellent jobs throughout. The core family unit are fairly generic, with little for either Catherine O’Hara or Martin Short to go town with in regards to the two parents, but thankfully they are given some more colourful supporting roles to also voice - from a bullish, aggressive gym teacher and hilariously vacuous, bug-eyed girl for O’Hara to an obnoxious, overbearing throaty neighbour and a junior antagonist in the vein of Boris Karloff for Short. Martin Landau is a particular highlight as Mr ‘Rice Krispies’, stealing practically every scene the character appears in with his non-description European tang and vehement adoration of science, including a gloriously matter-of-fact address to an assembly of enraged parents. Winona Ryder’s Elsa Van Helsing gets one or two moments of deadpan comedy but is relatively underused throughout, whilst Charlie Tahan does a beautifully tender and sincere job voicing lead character Victor.
Above all, everything about Frankenweenie demonstrates itself as a labour of love, and it’s certainly re-assuring and exciting to see one of the industry’s most individual and distinctive talents once again not only producing work befitting of his ability and legacy, but making the kind of films where his passion and investment is evident in practically every frame. Peppered with some great visual invention and a delightfully whimsical story that successfully juggles a blend of horror, fantasy and comedy, there is a great deal to love and celebrate about Burton’s endearing return to form. It isn’t particularly daring, and perhaps plays itself a little too safe at times, lacking the wit and edge of Nightmare Before Christmas and the similarly curious Coraline (both notably Henry Sellick films), but what it may lack in bite it more than makes up for in heart and effortless charm. The film’s quality and canny release timing should help make it the definitive family film for all ages this Halloween.
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs in full from 10 - 21 October 2012 in partnership with American Express. Press Screenings for the festival began 24 September 2012. For more information on the festival please visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff