Frankenweenie (PG) ***
Ginger and Rosa (12A) ***
Tim Burton's career, which seemed in tailspin with the Gothic resurrection comedy Dark Shadows earlier this year, has somehow righted itself with Frankenweenie, his most enjoyable film in ages. This too is a Gothic resurrection comedy, a monochrome stop-motion animation that revisits and extends a live-action short he made for Disney in 1984. On one level it pays affectionate homage to horror classics such as Bride of Frankenstein – Burton is an obsessive pasticheur – though more importantly it shows that he still has an instinct for a good yarn.
Set in a flat, manicured suburbia that could be the present (and could be the 1950s), it concerns one boy and his dog. Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a loner whose best and only friend is his bull terrier, Sparky, a not-too-bright but loveable creature who stars in Victor's Super-8 movies. He screens the latest, a hilarious creature feature, to his bemused parents (Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short), who naturally wonder if their son shouldn't get out a bit more. There is something at once endearing and disturbing about Burton's puppet characters. With their turnip-shaped heads, saucer eyes and ghostly pale skin they appear half-dead, or undead, which might be confusing given what is to follow.
During a baseball game Victor scores a home run, and Sparky, chasing the ball, is hit and fatally wounded by a car. Victor is inconsolable: "I don't want him in my heart," he tells his mother, "I want him here with me." But a second chance may be at hand. Inspired by his new science teacher, a stern, mittel-European Vincent Price-alike with a voice to match (by Martin Landau, who won an Oscar as Bela Lugosi in Burton's Ed Wood), the boy digs up the canine corpse, wires it to a pair of jumper cables and, in his attic laboratory at night, catches the electric currents shooting from a thunderstorm. And lo! Sparky, patched and stitched by his loving owner, is zapped back to life.
The oddity surrounding this is very Burtonesque. If it's not Victor's weird classmate reading the runes in her cat's turds (no, really), it's Landau's splendid lecturing of the schoolkids' parents, whose fear and ignorance of scientific experiment he chides: "Back home everyone is scientist. Even my plumber wins Nobel Prize." When he winds up his oration by telling them he wants to break open their children's heads to get at their brains, you realise: this man is not long for the school.
For an hour or so Frankenweenie is a really funny and unsettling meditation on the intense nature of childhood friendship – so intense that a boy will challenge death itself to be reunited with his pal. But then the idea is allowed to run away with itself as Victor's classmates, less soulful and more selfish than he, try out their own resurrectionist experiments. The monstrous mutations that ensue allow Burton to reference a handful of other scary movies, not just the Frankenstein pictures but Hitchcock thrillers such as The Birds and even, in its necrophiliac overtones, Vertigo.
It's a shame, because there is so much warmth and feeling in the early stages of the picture that one's expectations are raised. The voicework is especially good, not just Landau, O'Hara and Short but Atticus Shaffer as E Gore (channelling Peter Lorre) and Winona Ryder (remember her?) as Victor's girl next door. The puppets too are terrific, none more so than Sparky with his tapering Womble nose and ungainly body. There is pathos here, and ingenuity, and some genuine oddball humour, so let's be thankful for that. But it doesn't quite knock 'em dead.
There is a lot wrong with Sally Potter's coming-of-age drama Ginger and Rosa, including an overemphatic script, a galumphing sincerity and some dodgy accents. It gets very earnest about a teenager's poetry and very pompous about a writer's need for "autonomous thought". And yet it has something wonderful in it, too, a performance of charismatic soulfulness by Elle Fanning that holds the gaze and touches the heart. She was all of 13 when the film was made.
It's London, 1962, and people are marching for CND while the Cuban Missile Crisis glowers overhead. Among the marchers are the flame-haired Ginger (Fanning) and her sultry best friend Rosa (newcomer Alice Englert), who for all their roll-necked seriousness aren't above snogging, truanting, ironing hair and shrink- fitting their jeans in the bath.
Both girls disdain their mothers for being stuck in a domestic rut, both idolise Ginger's father, Roland (Alessandro Nivola), a writer and pacifist who went to prison during the war as a conscientious objector. When he takes the girls out in his boat for the night, cracks form in their relationship.
Potter (born 1949) is partially reliving her own back pages, having marched at Aldermaston and leafleted during the Missile Crisis. The callowness and arrogance of youth she forgives, and so do we, under the spell of Fanning's vivid presence and Robbie Ryan's luminous photography. The heartbreaking uncertainty of Ginger's smile when she asks her dad if she can move into his place is, for me, a highlight of the cinema year. On the downside, the teen poetry ("I love our world/ I want us all to live") is offered without irony, and the English vowels of American Christina Hendricks (Ginger's mum) are all over the place. Fine actors like Annette Bening, Jodhi May and Timothy Spall are sold short in underwritten parts. More rigour in the storytelling would not have gone amiss. But Fanning, a revelation in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, here proves it was no fluke, and carries the film over the line.
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