A scene from Tim Burton's Frankenweenie
Last year, there were no fewer than seven animated films dotted throughout the Top 20 money-making charts. When the cinema box office is finally totalled up for 2012, the percentage is likely to match or even possibly exceed that figure.
No great surprise there, you might argue, for animation is by its very, family-oriented, nature the most audience-friendly of film formats. However, filmmakers have also, thankfully, realised that as it’s generally “grown-ups” who accompany children to this sort of fare, their cartoons – if you’ll pardon the expression – now need to appeal much more across the board.
Which is why I can whole-heartedly recommend this week’s two examples of an art, which now comes in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes, from easily digestible traditional Disney and the nicely rounded computer-generated world of Pixar to our own Aardman’s time-consuming stop-motion using puppets and real sets on which the animator must stop and reposition the figures 24 times to get just one second of filmed action.
Frankenweenie (86 mins, PG), the latest film from director Tim Burton, better known for live-action movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Batman, conveniently bridges all these strands but actually looks like nothing we’ve really seen from Disney before.
In gleaming black-and-white – and containing numerous and often very droll nods to old monochrome horror films - the story in set in smalltown America where 10-year-old Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) divides his time between being a budding scientific genius and a passionate amateur filmmaker generally using his pet bull terrier Sparky as lead actor in his inventive sci-fi screenplays.
When the pooch is accidentally killed while Victor’s reluctantly playing baseball, the lad, inspired by his eccentric science teacher’s (Martin Landau) electricity experiment in class with a frog, decides to ramp up the odds, and the amps, to try and bring his beloved Sparky back to life.
So far, so successful. The trouble is, Victor can’t exactly parade the fact he’s re-animated the dog everyone in town believes is buried in the pet cemetery so stitched-up Sparky has to be kept away from prying eyes.
Easier said than done in this corner of suburbia where Victor’s young rivals in a prestigious science contest eventually catch on to his amazing secret and with a mixture of blackmail and intimidation force him to handover his formula to they can summon up their own dead pets.
The result is now suddenly more like Gremlins than Frankenstein as thanks to a series of unfortunate glitches a whole slew of newly-hatched hybrids are unleashed on the town climaxing in a spectacular finale which, thankfully, takes us back to closer to the original tale but with a touching, low-tech twist. Funny and exciting stuff, which may just be a little too intense at times for very young audiences.
If the title – a cutesy twist on Mary Shelley’s – seems vaguely familiar, then that’s because nearly 30 years ago, Burton, then an apprentice animator at Disney before heading off to pastures new, directed a much-acclaimed live-action short version of the same name. He’d always wanted to make it as a full-length animation and his original drawings were finally – very belatedly, one might add - put to good use on behalf of his old alma mater.
I can’t imagine Frankenweenie becoming a franchise – unless you count it as a logical extension of an continuing film fascination with one of literature’s great gothic sci-fi thrillers – whereas Madagascar 3 (93 mins, PG) as its title suggests, unravels the further global adventures of four animal pals who first saw big screen life way back in 2005.
We now catch up with Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) who are stranded in Africa and pining, rather oddly, for the cosier confines of New York Zoo from which they unwittingly escaped back in Part One.
Managing to reach mainland Europe – don’t ask – the quartet encounter the steely attentions of Captain Chantal (Frances McDormand in full gallic bore), a dogged animal control officer and only manage to elude her by, to coin a phrase, “joining the circus”.
Boasting the kind of voice-cast, to which add Sacha Baron Cohen as a boss lemur called Julien, which would probably be unaffordable in live-action, the action unfolds fast, furiously and above all very funnily in a series of ever more imaginative set pieces which wouldn’t be out of place in, say, classic Tom & Jerry.
Both films also boast modish 3D for extra effect. In the case of Madagascar, it’s surprisingly effective; with Frankenweenie, which is already considerably larger than life, I’d personally eschew those tiresome glasses and stick to the 2D.
Filmmakers regularly say they love animation because even with all the sophisticated computer generated imagery at their disposal, the form seems to offer ever more boundless opportunities for visual excitement and extravagant flights of fancy. If you can also throw in a decent script and inspired voiceover talent, then no wonder today’s sophisticated cartoon world is often more than a match for live action.
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David Gritten is away.