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rochefort [Film Festival 09.21.12] animation comedy fantasy family

If you're old enough to have been a Tim Burton fan since the short film Vincent and his first features Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, then you've been witness to the kind of transformation in which Hollywood unfortunately tends to specialize. Burton began as an incredibly talented oddball artist who turned a fascination with Edward Gorey, Hammer films, and the Universal monsters into a lush and distinct visual calling card. But over time he became a wealthy and repetitive fixture of the Hollywood establishment, and these days the term "Burtonesque" doesn't connote nearly the level of cool it once did. Quality-wise, his career bottomed out with the incredibly awful Planet of the Apes, but by then his films were critic-proof enough to usually do good box office. Which didn't do much to comfort those of us who'd like to see him take some risks or strip things down and get back to basics. Frankenweenie could be evidence of the latter. But it's too early to tell.

This 3D, stop-motion, feature-length expansion of the acclaimed short film from early in Burton's career is about young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a boy genius who lives in the suburbs of New Holland, a place populated with kids who talk like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, cats who predict the future by leaving special presents in the litterbox, and a science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) who introduces his students to the life-restoring possibilities of lightning. When Victor's dog Sparky is hit and killed by a car, he does what any future mad scientist would do and brings the beloved pooch back to life. His circle of friends find out before long and, hoping to beat him in the upcoming science fair, they each concoct respective schemes to use Victor's experiment to bring back their own deceased pets, with disastrous results.

While this new pic is not quite near the level of Burton's Edward Scissorhands, it has some of the same goals, and that's a good thing. You don't really have to oversell the emotional punch of a boy losing his first and best pet, and the script by John August wisely keeps the mourning period gently and gracefully short. After the centerpiece scene wherein Victor performs the reanimating experiment (a real standout, and the one scene that justifies the 3D), Sparky takes a little time to readjust to his new state as a pet who has to be jump-started, literally, every once in a while. And this is where the script really does a 180, as it then veers off to focus on Victor's classmates and their quest to top his mad science. The effect is a little odd; on the one hand, it's nice that the story doesn't mimic the original Frankenstein too closely in a bid for easy pathos; after all, Scissorhands was basically a retelling of Shelley's story in itself. On the other, the movie is called Frankenweenie, so it's strange that the titular character should be absent for a large chunk of the second act, especially since there are so many early hints about how Victor and his undead pet will be discovered by the townsfolk and suffer a monster's fate. There's almost no follow-through on any of them, as if sections of the script were switched out at the last minute with an extended series of references to some of Burton's favorite monster movies.

But the trade-off is okay and it is, for the most part, pretty fun. The black and white visuals are gorgeous, and the voice cast, featuring quite a few Burton regulars like Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder, is consistently good. Martin Landau steals the show, and a scene where he berates a group of students' parents for condemning his teaching methods is by far the film's best. But this scene, which is probably just screenwriter August channelling his frustration at the Luddites among us, exposes a flaw in both the pic's pro-science agenda and the overall structure of the story. The occasionally indignant undercurrents of the story casually gloss over the fact that, no matter how valuable and vital science may be, the original Frankenstein (and by Hollywoodized extension Frankenweenie) is perhaps the ultimate fictional discourse on ethics and experimentation in the world of scientific progress, and resists drawing any populist or even overt conclusions. This oversight is the kind of clumsy thematic inconsistency that makes some of Burton's films too scattershot, and some just plain boring, so in this sense Frankenweenie doesn't much seem like progress. But when it has heart, it works, and there's enough in this latest film to grant Burton another chance to claw his way back to awesomeness. But man, another Alice in Wonderland, and I'm done.

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