The world premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is kicking off this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin (September 20 - 27). I had the chance to see a press screening of Frankenweenie tonight and thought it was the best thing Burton has done in a long time. He seems to have reconnected to his Beetlemuse. His new flick is streamlined and fun, unlike the bloated hot water dogs he’s been serving up in recent years
Frankenweenie is a feature-length remake of a wonderful short movie Burton made back in 1984. It features many of the director’s signature touches: bug-eyed goth kids, allusions to horror movie classics (particularly those made by Universal Studios in the 1930s), a main character based on Vincent Price, the manicured emptiness of suburbia, childhood nightmares and alienation. And though the movie has a wicked sense of humor, it is one of the sweetest films Burton has made in awhile, calling forth the kinds of emotions that made Edward Scissorhands so exceptional.
Frankenweenie features spirited voice acting by Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Wynona Ryder, Martin Landau and a typically lush, haunted house score by Danny Elfman. The puppets, stop-animation, sets and CGI blend into a phantasmagorical whole that feels more organic than most recent animated films - the world of Frankenweenie looks lived in, with lots of telling details that add to an overall feeling of hyperrealism. In keeping with its homage to the great films of James Whale and Tod Browning, Burton’s tale of a dead doggy brought back to life was shot in in glorious black and white. The film is also in 3D, which apparently is required these days for family-style blockbusters. Burton doesn’t use the 3D for gimmicky effects. With the exceptions of Hugo and Avatar, I haven’t been knocked out by the glut of recent 3D movies. But Burton uses it with subtle artfulness to enhance depth of field, accentuate shadow and stretch space. At times the camera peers around foreground objects with the furtiveness of a curious and frightened child - sort of like peeking through the fingers of your hands while watching a scary movie. Perfect.
After a series of less than stellar films, Burton has returned to a place that he knows well and to the kind of storytelling in which he excels. His connection to the material is palpably joyous. There’s more honest laughs and feel-good moments in Frankenweenie than in any Burton movie since Ed Wood. And the darker, edgier moments in the film keep it from being sentimental kiddie stuff. I found great pleasure in watching irritatingly cute animals transformed into snarling blood-crazed zombies, particularly one repellent little kitty who meets a fate that recalls that long ago encounter between Bambi and Godzilla. There’s a French poodle made to resemble Elsa Lanchester from Bride Of Frankenstein that’s pure genius and just one of a slew of visual gags that give Frankenweenie more snap than a Coney Island tube steak.
Frankenweenie will hit theaters on October 5.
Dangerous Minds will be reporting from Fantastic Fest for the next week. Stay tuned.