What's better than Catherine O'Hara performing a juicy supporting role in a new movie? Catherine O'Hara performing three juicy supporting roles in a new movie.
Sure, we only get her voice because the film is animated, but O'Hara is a riot as three characters in Tim Burton's inventive, funny and heartfelt "Frankenweenie." She's the mom, the P.E. teacher and a classmate of main character Victor Frankenstien, a shy, science-obsessed boy who has occasion to find out, as his bewildered dad puts it, that "reanimating a corpse is very upsetting."
The corpse Victor re- animates, inspired by a lightning storm and the very-full pet cemetery next door, is his beloved dog, Sparky, who gets hit by a car early in the movie. That deathis a surprisingly moving one, partly because "Frankenweenie" is so sharply observed (there's a perfect scene in which Sparky, prior to his untimely death, barks in surprise at a ball) and because it's so willing to go dark. Very little children might be freaked out by the monsters and disturbing images in "Frankenweenie," but the movie needs the dark stuff to contrast with its sweet and funny moments.
Before I saw "Frankenweenie," I suspected it would travel a road creator Burton has gone down too often, a dark road lined with over-designed, sinister branches that look like the arms of the devil, beckoning us to hell. Burton's obsession with the macabre things that have fascinated him since he was a child has resulted in terrific work ("Edward Scissorhands"). However, it also has resulted in movies that are great to look at for two minutes but quickly become boring and inert ("Alice in Wonderland," "Dark Shadows," "Corpse Bride").
Like all Burton projects, "Frankenweenie's" images are stunning. Although it takes place in the present, it's in black-and-white, a vague promise of gruesome horror to come. The sets are so vivid you forget they're not real, and the characters' design is distinct in its just-a-little-off-of-humanness.
But it also has a ton of heart: Victor's outsider status is easy to relate to, as are the goofy classmates who accidentally unleash reanimated monsters on their town (they may remind you of the similarly science-obsessed Jimmy Neutron and pals). And "Frankenweenie" grapples with the uses and morals of science, like the "Frankenstein" story it plays off of, but its real theme is a great one for kids and parents: learning to let go.
Burton's cast nails the humor and the heart of the story, led by Burton regulars O'Hara, Winona Ryder and Martin Landau, as the creepy teacher who inspires Victor's noodling in the graveyard. And there's one more bonus: skillful voice actor Martin Short who, like O'Hara, plays not one, not two, but three roles.
Movie crtic Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Voices of Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, Martin Short
Rated: PG, for some violent images
Should you go? Yes. It may be the best animated movie this year, and it's Burton's best film since "Edward Scissorhands." ***-1/2