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'Frankenweenie' An Instant Stop Motion Classic

Panoramic vistas take your breath away.

 

PARIS — This week, Cinema Siren is writing from France, land of unpasteurized cheese, Jerry Lewis obsession, well-behaved dogs in restaurants and a great appreciation of auteur film directors. I'm here for the opening of a Star Wars toy exhibit at the Louvre that involves some film art friends of mine.  

Nowhere would there be a better place to speak of the gorgeous piece of animated film-making that is Frankenweenie than where there is in fact no literal translation for "director's cut," because it wouldnt occur to the French that there would be any other version of a film.

Tim Burton is really the very definition of auteur, in that he has a very clear vision for his film-making, a recognizable stylistic stamp that fans embrace and revere, and critics celebrate or love to loathe, depending on the film. When used to best effect, as in Edward Scissorhands, his vision articulates a timeless twisted and bittersweet Gothic world with a touch of nostalgic charm. At his best he somehow weaves these two things together without irony, or adds a touch of utter horror (as in Sweeney Todd) and that ability is what makes his fans so passionate and steadfast.  

When he fails, his movies can be dreadful. He has been arguably a bit spotty of late, and lost a few fans who are now on the fence. Here though, with the stop-motion version of a live-action short he created early in his career, Burton has added one that can be listed with his best works.  

The story is of an unpopular boy and his dog and faithful best friend Sparky -- who happens to get run over and become the object of a successful experiment in the attic of the Frankenstein household. Now would be a great time to warn parents that only certain kids under 10 (the movie is rated PG — parental guidance suggested) will be able to withstand several scenes, notably involving pet loss and big scary monsters that could only creep out of the mind of Tim Burton.

During the critic screening, several kids became terrified and stayed that way long enough to make a few of us wonder if they had sadistic parents. If you have any doubts, prescreen. This movie would have scared the bejesus out of me as a kid and I saw Night of The Living Dead when I was 8 years old...

For those who are game for the reinvention of a Franken-tale, the visuals are reward enough to warrant viewing. Filmed completely in shades of black, white and everything in between, there is such richness, one feels as if one is watching a color film.

The viewer may not notice what must have been excruciating attention to detail in not only the frame-by-frame movements stop-motion requires, but also in the gradation of colors within such a seemingly limited color palette. There are panoramic vistas that take your breath away.

Let's talk about characterization. Fans (like myself) of Nightmare Before Christmas who search in vain for another movie where the secondary characters are as colorful and compelling as the leads will find a great and appropriately quirky collection to fall for in Frankenweenie. That talented actors Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short each voice multiple parts no doubt helps the audience choose more folks they look forward to seeing even for a limited time onscreen.  

My personal favorite is "Weird Girl," with her creepy wide eyes and matching creepy wide-eyed cat.....Martin Landau also adds great vocal panache as inspiring science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who looks the spitting image of Vincent Price.  

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the obvious influence of the film Bride of Frankenstein and the homage to director James Whale this movie represents. It would be a great idea to watch that sometime (whether for the first or 100th time) before popping out to see Frankenweenie.  Not only are there scenes that have moments snatched directly from BoF, but even Victor's makeshift attic lab has little tidbits that will tickle those who know Whale's film well.  

Burton couldn't borrow from a better classic, especially as it is expressed in stop motion. It shows not only a reverence for the horror classic, but also feels to at least this animation lover that Tim Burton is making a statement about the viability and value of animation as a classic genre of film capable of the highest level of artistry.

If there is one fault of the movie overall, it is the uneven flow of the way the story unfolds. At times it feels like it can't decide exactly what it wants to be. It is a European-styled (read slowly developing) expression of the latest in stop-motion genre or it's a kid's horror flick (exciting and fast moving!), or it's a Goth teen's fantasy (black as can be...and mope-tastic!), or maybe Burton is hopeful it's all these things...

This Halloween we movie lovers who love both a scare and a visual feast born of artistic passion are in for a major treat. Score one for the freaky Goth kids of the world. We get one more great movie to watch every year. Thanks Mr. Burton. Bravo et bien fait!

Frankenweenie is showing at the Bellevue Theater in Upper Montclair. Click here for showtimes.

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