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Capone calls FRANKENWEENIE brilliant, joyful, creepy, mildly inappropriate, gorgeous, creative, and Spark-tacular. Clearly, he's on the fence!!!

Published at: Oct. 5, 2012, 11:27 p.m. CST

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

The excitement and anticipation level I feel about any new Tim Burton film will rise and fall, but it will never go away completely. While I've endured many years of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DARK SHADOWS, and PLANET OF THE APES, his latest work—the stunning black-and-white, stop-motion homage to old-timey horror film FRANKENWEENIE—is a return to form the likes of which I haven't experienced from this or any faded director in quite some time. And if for no other reason, Frankenweenie is a triumph because it celebrates original story telling. Yes, it's a fleshed-out version of Burton's 1984 short of the same name, made a year before his first feature, PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE. And yes, it uses characters and cinematic styles of a bygone era in horror films, but Burton uses these tools in ways that border on the brilliant.

The story follows young Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), last name Frankenstein (hmm, I know that name sounds familiar), a budding young stop-motion filmmaker, who is also something of an inventor and best friend to his faithful dog Sparky, who is killed in an accident early on in the movie. Victor is heartbroken, and even the kid words of his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara, both of whom voice multiple characters here) can't console him. But after learning from his science teacher (Martin Landau, who characer looks a lot like Vincent Price) about how the wiring of the body's nervous system stays active even after death, Victor gets the idea to resurrect his deceased pooch using the lightning from the storms that seem to fly over his town every night.

Victor digs up his Sparky's body, stitches back up the broken bits, and goes through with the experiment in his attic with much success—a disoriented, lethargic, but still loved companion is brought back from the dead. But when the strange collection of kids from his class find out what Victor did, they start experimenting on their pets (living and dead) and turn their small town into a monster-filled nightmare. A turtle becomes Gamera; a cat goes through a horrific werewolf-style transformation into a flying cat monster; a rat becomes, um, an uglier version of a rat; and sea monkeys become... well, I don't want to spoil that wonderful surprise. But whatever you do, don't get them wet.

Burton has outdone himself in terms of breathing familiar attributes into his characters, and watching FRANKENWEENIE filled me with joy as it took me back to a time when I was discovering the Universal monsters, Hammer horror films, and the creatures that made up the GODZILLA universe. I particularly like that Victor isn't an outcast in his class; each of Victor's fellow students, including the cute goth girl voiced by Winona Ryder named Elsa Van Helsing, is a weirdo. One looks like Igor, one looks and sounds like Boris Karloff, one reminded me of the classic Godzilla-era Japanese scientist (guess which pet monster is his), and the list goes on. If you tried to pick a favorite character (human or pet-monster), it would simply be impossible.

With FRANKENWEENIE, Burton has reopened the mildly inappropriate part of his creativity (along with screenwriter John August). Yes, it is strange that Sparky's body parts keep falling off or that when he drinks water, the liquid leaks out from his stitches. It's also extremely funny in a sickening way. And the fact that he was able to make this gorgeous work of art in black and white thrills me to no end. It wouldn't make any sense any other way. The extreme, misshapen shadows add so much to the playfully creepy atmosphere of the movie. The film still manages to pull off a PG rating, but older audiences are going to see and understand elements to the work that younger children might not get (but I hope they do).

It's rare that films made for families or younger audiences actually make me feel young again, but FRANKENWEENIE did so with every magnificently composed frame. Burton is wearing his influences and childhood favorite movie characters like a finely tailored suit, and it fits him beautifully. I hope he leaves the remakes and adaptations behind for a while, and digs into that warped mind of his again and again. The results are spectacular, and in a year that has already seen animated horror like the near-perfect PARANORMAN and the far-from-perfect (but hugely successful) HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA, maybe this year will be looked back upon as the year that a certain level of scary movie became something parents saw as appropriate for the younger set. If it means more movies like FRANKENWEENIE, I support the initiative. By far, this is the week's best release.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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