Does Bigfoot really make beef jerky commercials? Is Elvis indeed living out his golden years somewhere in Nevada? More importantly, can Tim Burton actually make a movie without Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter? These are the questions that can keep any sane human tossing and turning in the late hours of the night. But rest assured, tortured souls: In his latest film, Burton responds to our doubts with a resounding “Yes, you’re goddamn right I can.”
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But in all seriousness, “Frankenweenie,” the proclaimed creative genius’s latest foray into animated children’s films, really is the best movie he’s made since “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” And just like any other worthwhile Burton film, “Frankenweenie” comes alive in its attention to detail. Everything about the little town painstakingly created by the team of talented animators from 3 Mills Studio screams “horror movie homage.”
Each of the quirky characters running around are direct and indirect references to some of the most influential scary movies in cinematic history, the most direct being main character Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan, “Charlie St. Cloud”). Victor is the typical outcast, a strange child who has an even stranger fascination with scary homemade movies and science. It’s the type of character Burton has embraced in every one of his films — outlandish, imaginative and, above all, isolated. In some views, the character is perhaps a representation of Burton’s own childhood — one probably enveloped by a shell of seclusion that indirectly nurtured a blossoming sense of imagination and weirdness.
In any event, Victor’s only friend is his dog, Sparky, who unfortunately meets his end at the hands of a speeding car. Victor is obviously devastated and eventually finds inspiration to bring Sparky back to life using a technique very similar to the one used in a certain Mary Shelley novel. Before long, the town discovers Victor’s method of reanimating dead animals and the fun begins as everyone races to bring their own dead pets back to life. Before long, the town is overrun by an army of zombie beasts, and havoc ensues.
All of the characters Burton has created in this film are distinct and memorable, but perhaps the funniest and creepiest one is Edgar (Atticus Shaffer, TV’s “The Middle”), an Igor-like hunchback who eventually becomes Victor’s “friend” and accomplice. Voiced with a certain childlike malevolence, Edgar’s presence on screen is likely to scare younger audience members, but that subtle scariness, coupled with a strange sense of likability, is a demonstration of Burton’s ability to flesh out interesting characters.
Apart from the collection of surprisingly complex characters, “Frankenweenie” is also memorable for its distinct approach to claymation. Unlike previous films that have adopted the same technique, “Frankenweenie” is shot in black and white with 3D. It seems like a strange combination, but works perfectly with Burton’s take on the innate creepiness of everything around us. The bleak Victorian houses and crooked trees in the form of skeletal hands grasping for life are just a few examples of how well the approach works. Ultimately, it’s this visual brilliance that make this movie an otherworldly experience.