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London Film Festival: Frankenweenie Reviewed
Chris Bell , October 17th, 2012 03:09

Chris Bell watches Tim Burton's return to animation, which opened the 56th London Film Festival last week and goes on nationwide release today

Tim Burton returns to the big screen with Frankenweenie, following the frankly all over the place Dark Shadows, and guess what? It's actually rather good. The 3D stop-motion animation feature, which last week opened the London Film Festival, is something of a passion project for the director. A revisiting of his 1984 live action short of the same name, it feels like his most personal feature for years. Some may also be relieved to learn that there's neither a Johnny Depp nor a Helena Bonham Carter in sight – or earshot.

Frankenweenie tells the story of young Victor and his beloved pet dog Sparky. After Sparky is run over by a car and killed, Victor, inspired by his eccentric science teacher Mr Rzykruski (a character voiced by Martin Landau and modelled on Vincent Price), decides to take action and bring his canine chum back to life. One lightning storm later (can you see where this is going?) and Sparky's as good as new, save for a stitched-on tail and the odd patch of flappy skin. Of course, however, as in any self-respecting Promethean tale, it doesn't take long before all sorts of chaos, hilarity and general bother ensues.

His third stop-motion feature after producing/co-writing The Nightmare Before Christmas and co-directing Corpse Bride, Burton's Frankenweenie is visually familiar, its characters displaying the usual exaggerated features associated with his previous animations. Victor with his oversized head and saucer-like eyes, and Mr Rzykruski with his elongated face, stick-thin body and razor-sharp teeth, are two prime examples. The puppets, handcrafted in Manchester and London, and animated at 3 Mills Studio, are works of art themselves, the attention to detail and sheer love put into them unmistakable, as is the painstaking work of the team of 32 animators (who each got through an average of four seconds of footage per week).

The film can count itself as being only one of a few in the past few years to have found a proper use for 3D too, the extra dimension giving the sense of real, physical objects on the screen before you, and truly bringing the craft of the huge team of puppet and prop makers to life. For once, the use of 3D doesn't feel like a gimmick, and in monochrome throughout, it looks just sublime.

It feels safe enough to say that this the best Tim Burton picture for some time – possibly since 1999‘s Sleepy Hollow – but considering its challengers include the mediocre Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, that's admittedly no huge accolade in itself. Still, it feels significant that so much about Frankenweenie is about its creator going back to his roots. Set in a dreamy suburbia with white picket fences and oddball characters, it's a nod to the 1950s B movies and TV shows that inspired him as a youngster, while also reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands. Burton is reunited with actors who worked with him on his biggest critical triumphs, including Winona Ryder (who previously starred in Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice), Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas), Martin Landau (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow) and Martin Short (Mars Attacks!).

While I wouldn't go so far as to suggest this trip down memory lane is Burton throwing his hands up and admitting the past decade hasn't been working for him, it's hard not to imagine that he revelled in turning back the clock to collaborate with a cast who were such an integral part of his former successes, on a story conceived nearly 30 years ago when the likes of 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were but a disaster waiting to happen.

In many ways this is more of the same, standard Burton fare: kooky black humour and gothic imagery shot throughout, as well as references to archetypal monster movie characters, from hunchbacks to Godzilla to, of course, Frankenstein. But it's also a film with charm, with its heart in the right place and with all the caring attention to detail, the sincerity and the human touch lacking from his recent outings. It may be wildly sentimental, it may not be life-changing, but it's certainly worthy of at least a mention in the same breath as great kids' horror flicks such as Gremlins or Monsters, Inc.

It's also a credit to Burton that he even attempted to bring to the multiplex a film which, on paper (stop-motion puppets, black and white, horror - for kids?) shouldn't work for mainstream audiences. It speaks volumes for his standing in, and influence on, the cutthroat world of movie making that a project which had him fired by Disney in 1984 for being too weird can in 2012 be recommissioned by the very same company in a medium as sadly esoteric as stop-motion animation, a beautiful art form but an ailing industry since the CGI explosion of the early '90s.

In a nice, neat way, the story of Frankenweenie mirrors both its injection of life into the stop-motion medium, and its rejuvenation of Burton's creative powers. Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen.

The Art of Frankenweenie exhibition runs until Sunday October 21 in the London Film Festival Village, Southbank Centre. Entry is free but tickets must be collected at the BFI Southbank Box Office, from 11am to 8pm daily. Last entry time is 7.30pm.