Beasts of the Southern Wild (12A)
At heart Tim Burton is just a big kid; a big, weird kid. And the best of his films – Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Corpse Bride – reflect the wide-eyed, sweet but also slightly creepy perspective through which a child might see the world.
Frankenweenie merits inclusion in the above list. It is an absolute joy, its oddball imagination impeccably realised. Made for Disney, it's also one of few Burton films that will appeal to people of all ages.
As with Corpse Bride, which he directed, and A Nightmare Before Christmas, which he produced, this is a return to Burton's roots as an animator. The intense attention to detail that characterises his live-action films comes from an apprenticeship in which it could take a week to animate five seconds of film. So you expect this stop-motion outing to be teeming with life; well, life and death.
As the title suggests, it is an homage to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but it also alludes to the early horror films that impacted on the young director, from Hammer's Dracula to such Universal classics of the 1930s as The Mummy – all given a child-friendly sheen, of course.
The main character is 10-year-old Victor, a shy loner whose love for his dog Sparky is matched only by his love of science. When the hound dies in an accident, the bereft boy – inspired by new science teacher Mr Rzykruski – decides to reanimate his pet. A terrific sequence sees Victor use a bicycle, record player, TV, various toys, kites, and of course lightening to do just that.
While the sensible lad keeps the dog hidden from view, his classmates – a veritable collection of ghouls – decide to steal his technique and reanimate their own pets, with less appealing results. I particularly liked Colossus, dug up from the pet cemetery; we're never quite sure what it is, or was, but its size will certainly be surprising.
The film is shot in gorgeously moody black and white, while the puppets cover the gamut of relatively human to downright frightening. Of the voice actors, Martin Landau – who won as Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood – is a standout as the startling Rzykruski, whose response to angry parents is "I think the confusion here is that you are all ignorant", and Winona Ryder lends her distinctive melancholy to Victor's love interest, Elsa Van Helsing.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a beautiful, deeply strange fable, riffling on the experience of Hurricane Katrina but not in the slightest a realist piece, concerning a Louisiana island community indelibly connected to the bayou and with no intention to leave, despite the brewing storm and – I said it was strange – prehistoric warthogs coming their way. The focus is a touching father-daughter relationship. Prickly eccentric Wink (Dwight Henry) and his self-reliant, raucous-haired six-year-old Hushpuppy (the remarkable Quvenzhane Wallis) live in a sort of trailer treehouse, only half-contentedly, when the impending storm and his failing health focus the single parent on his responsibilities. Their story gives the magical and sometimes wayward film its emotional grounding, as does their community's efforts not to be thrown by the storm into the hands of the more conventional world that circles them.