32 posts categorized "Animation"

October 05, 2012


FrankenweenieGoth Dog Lives!
Tim Burton Gets Nostalgic
By Cole Smithey

Tim Burton’s 3D stop-motion animated reductionist homage to the Golden Era of horror films — namely the Universal films of the ‘30s — is beautiful thing. If that means including a few nods to Japan’s “Godzilla” films of the ‘50s so much the better to charm baby boomers who share Burton’s fond childhood memories of good old fashioned monster movies. The sound effects alone are a study in polished perfection. Every squeak, thunderbolt strike, and dog bark rings like a perfectly tuned bell. As with all of Tim Burton’s films, his painstaking attention to every detail of narrative and visual realization is always present. Based on a live-action half-hour short film Burton made in 1984, there’s an extra amount of filmmaking-love on display in “Frankenweenie” that makes the experience of watching it a truly special treat for the viewer.

The film’s shimmering black-and-white rendering is so immaculate and crisp that it takes your breath away. Burton pokes fun at his own mastery of stop-motion animation with an intro film-within-a-film that announces his young gothic protagonist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) as a budding filmmaker of horror movies. Victor screens his Godzilla-inspired home movie for his ‘50s era parents in the family living room. To his folk’s delight, Victor’s dog Sparky has a prominent role as the hero that destroys a winged monster that attacks the film’s cardboard town. At the end, the 8mm film stock burns against the projector lens. No worries; Victor can “fix” it.


Some woolly dinner table “advice” from Victor’s well-meaning dad (voiced by Martin Short) regarding Victor’s solitary habits leads the scrawny tow-headed lad to play baseball on a neighborhood team. Surprisingly, Victor has some power in his bat. Yet the glory of his first would-be home run is ruined by the untimely death of Sparky who gets hit by a car after running for the ball.


At school, Victor’s Vincent Price-lookalike science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau) gives the class a lesson in the power of electric current to animate a dead frog. Predisposed to scientific experimentation, Victor takes the cue to dig up Sparky and attempt to reanimate his pointy-nosed bull terrier with the use of some kites on a stormy night from the comfort of his attic laboratory. Victor can’t keep Sparky’s sudden return to the land of the living a secret from his nosey classmate Edgar, who promptly spills the beans to a couple of other copycat pals determined to ignite life in a their own deceased, or at least inanimate, creatures. A bag of “Sea-Monkeys” explodes into an army of especially creepy little villains after coming to life in a swimming pool. Among the pandemonium that ensues is the comical transformation of a black female poodle into a bride-of-Frankenstein-styled pup after she and the appropriately named Sparky rub noses.


Looking back at Burton’s flawed 1984 version of “Frankenweenie” is informative for the many layers of corrective narrative tissue the auteur has added with the help of his longtime script collaborator John August (“Big Fish” - 2003). Burton tosses in subtle references from his own filmography. A dash of “Corpse Bride” here, a pinch of “Edward Scissorhands” there, and a dose of “Mars Attacks!” gels neatly with details drawn from James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein." Tim Burton seems to be actively inviting adolescent audience members to pursue their own imaginative filmmaking projects. There’s a lot to appreciate in this tastefully punchy animated horror comedy. Repeated viewings are in order. “Frankenweenie” is poised to be the next best Halloween classic for kids.  

Rated PG. 87 mins. (A) 

Five Stars

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August 28, 2012


ParaNormanStop-Motion Spooky
Laika Cuts Pixar Down to Size
By Cole Smithey

Fans of Aardman’s handcrafted style of animation will find much to enjoy in this wonderfully stylized stop-motion comedy-horror-thriller about a little boy named Norman who sees dead people, or at least their ghosts. Co-director/writer Chris Butler (storyboard artist for “Corpse Bride” and “Caroline”) teams up with Sam Fell (director of “Flushed Away”). The result is a detail-rich kids’ monster movie that strikes a fine balance between comedy, suspense, and goofy horror. You know you’re in good hands in the first minute.

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) likes to watch gross-out B-horror movies on television while talking to the ghost of his dead grandmother (voiced by the inimitable Elaine Stritch). The movie opens with a televised grindhouse horror-movie parody — complete with scratched up film stock — that delights Norman. Neon-green goopy brain matter comes with the territory. The film’s zippy production design (courtesy of Laika production house in Oregon) and off-kilter humor is a riot. The clever intro makes you wish they’d turn the short into its own feature-length movie.


Norman’s parents worry about him — dad (Jeff Garlin) more so than mom (Leslie Mann). Everywhere Norman goes in his small New England town of Blithe Hollow, he sees and talks to the ghosts of deceased citizens. Echoes of the 17th century Salem witch trials reverberate. Norman gets bullied at school for his weird behavior, and also due to his unusual appearance that includes hair that sticks straight up in the air. They call him “Ab-Norman.” Funny stuff. A rehearsal for a Halloween school play that Norman is in, gives rise to a scene-stealing instructional line reading from Norman’s teacher (voiced by Alex Borstein).


His uncle’s guffaw-inducing death enables the freshly minted ghost to give Norman his marching orders to eradicate an annual curse by a witch’s ghost that promises to bring on a plague of zombies. Norman’s ability to talk to the dead isn’t such a bad thing after all. Good thing Norman has his chubby pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) to come along for the ride. Anna Kendrick wangs it up as Norman’s self-obsessed teen sister Courtney. Painting her toenails and dreaming about the ab muscles on her buff classmate Mitch (Casey Affleck) keep Courtney occupied until. Mitch’s participation in the story as Neil’s older brother holds a not-so-subtle (read adult oriented) character revelation that sends a witty punch line late the story.


ParaNorman” has its share of jaunty chase sequences to keep kids on the edge of their seats. No matter how many pieces the encroaching zombies break into, their body parts keep on attacking. Expert camera work from cinematographer Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) gives the movie plenty of lively movement. An over-the-top climax explodes into a surreal universe of cosmic horror that borders on science fiction. Visually, the movie is a treat. The story is a little lightweight and muddled, but you shouldn't hold that against it. If you liked “Caroline” (2009), the animation here is even better.

Rated PG. 93 mins. (B) (Three stars - out of five/no halves)

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June 09, 2012


Madagascar_three_ver3Third Time’s a Charm
Familiar Zoo Escapees Make Circus Antics a Smash

It took three directors to make the third installment in the “Madagascar” franchise, yet the compound collaboration has resulted in an impressive animated comedy. Noah Baumbach’s screenwriting contributions, alongside franchise regular co-writer/director Eric Darnell, are in evidence.

Audience chuckles and belly laughs come at regular intervals. The level of visual and narrative sophistication on display is astonishing. There are no fart jokes to distract from the fun-loving animal characters that have become like family members to a generation of young moviegoers. The filmmakers pull off a neat trick by continuously raising the stakes for audience expectations before paying off on gently implied promises with breathtaking virtuosic sequences. An eye-popping chase scene across the rooftops of Monte Carlo’s skyline hits the mark. In addition, the film’s explosion of color during a circus-themed third act climax is an over-the-top expression of dynamic animation at its finest. The filmmakers’ obvious Cirque du Soliel inspiration for the denouement takes delightful three-dimensional flight at just the right moment.


A surrealistic black-and-white dream sequence opens the movie as a tip-off to adult spectators that the movie will also address their intellects. Returning voice-actors Ben Stiller (as Alex the lion), Chris Rock (as Marty the zebra), Jada Pinkett Smith (as Gloria the hippo), and David Schwimmer (as Melman the giraffe), all deliver knockout performances. A clever editorial choice to give a circus bear named Sonya the mute trait of an actual bear, brings the animated animal world one step closer to reality. Sonya’s inability to talk hardly stops Cedric the Entertainer’s aye-aye creature Maurice from falling for her hairy charms. Maurice has a fetish he’s none too embarrassed about expressing when opportunity presents itself.

The plot couldn’t be simpler. Our familiar animal buddies are trying to leave Madagascar and return to their previous home, the New York City zoo. A brief layover in Monte Carlo brings them to the attention of Capitaine Chantel DuBois (amazingly voiced in a biting French accent by Frances McDormand). DuBois is “part bloodhound and part Cruella DeVil — with a little Edith Piaf thrown in for good measure.” There’s no telling if McDormand herself performed the French song DuBois belts out in a surprising bit of chanteuse inspiration, but the musical diversion arrives with an ear-pleasingly authentic Gallic slap and tickle.


DuBois wants the severed heads of Alex, Marty, Gloria, and Melman hanging on her trophy wall. Our motley crew finds refuge in the company of a train-traveling circus with its own host of kooky animal personalities. Jessica Chastain’s slinky jaguar Gia holds romantic promise for Alex if he can just figure out how to come up with a circus act impressive enough to gain the sponsorship of a London promoter.


It took the orchestrated efforts of roughly 200 highly skilled artists to make “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” So, it’s all the more rewarding when such a high-wire act of ensemble inspiration comes together to form a movie overflowing with hilarious surprises. For once, even the 3D aspects of an animated movie are calculated to make the audience duck in their seats a few times as objects seem to fly from the screen. “Madagascar 3” is a winner no matter how you slice it.

Rated PG. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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