Familiar friends, new faces excited to help Burton re-animate 'Frankenweenie'

Landau, Tahan, Shaffer among stars in black-and-white, stop-motion spectacle

Published On: Oct 04 2012 04:04:27 PM CDT   Updated On: Oct 05 2012 08:53:37 AM CDT
Frankenweenie E Gore Victor Rzykruski

Pulling in several key actors from as far back as back as 1988's "Beetlejuice" for his new film "Frankenweenie," Tim Burton is demonstrating his loyalty once again to the people who helped make him the famed director he is today.

Simply put, once you become a part of Burton's film family, you're always a part of Burton's film family.

"They're a part of the family, whether they like it or not," Burton told me with a laugh during a recent interview. "Sometimes you're able to work with people you know and sometimes you can't, but that's OK. I like it when I can work with people I've worked with before and mixing it up with new people, as well. Both ways has its advantages."

In the case of "Frankenweenie," a black-and-white, stop-motion animated expansion of his 1984 live-action short film of the same name, Burton was able to bring aboard familiar names like Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O'Hara and Martin Landau. The new kids on the block include Charlie Tahan and Atticus Shaffer, who voice the instrumental roles of Victor Frankenstein and Edgar "E" Gore, respectfully.

New in 2D, 3D and Imax theaters Friday, "Frankenweenie" is a fun and lively homage to the monster movies of the '30s, '40s and '50s, where Victor brings his dog, Sparky, back to life a la "Frankenstein" after the faithful pooch is accidentally hit by a car in the suburban community of New Holland. But once Edgar discovers Victor's secret of re-animation and spills his guts to a group of classmates, the kids jolt their own late, beloved pets back to life -- but unfortunately, with monstrous results.

Landau, who won an Oscar for his role as monster-movie legend Bela Lugosi in Burton's "Ed Wood" and worked with the filmmaker on three other films, said Burton has continued to find ways to amaze and inspire him.

"He creates a playground for actors, and it's a lot of fun, even if you're not on camera," Landau told me giddily in a recent interview. "The funny thing is, when I saw the movie, I thought if I had been on camera, behaviorally, I would have done everything my character had done. It was kind of mind-boggling, because I saw the part in my head as I did it, naturally, and it turned out the way I hoped it would."

Like Landau, Tahan was blown away by seeing himself come to life in a different way through the film's stop-motion animation.

"Watching the whole movie, I actually forgot that that was me doing the voice, but I could see myself in other ways," Tahan told me.

Landau voices Mr. Rzykruski, a stately Eastern European science teacher whose teachings spark Victor to re-animate his late dog. But Rzykruski's science competition also leads to accidents with other eager students, which lands him in hot water with parents in New Holland.

"He's a passionate man, but he also has a problem with his very fast brain-and-mouth coordination. Anything that comes into his head goes out of his mouth immediately, and he's certainly not diplomatic," Landau observed. "My feeling is he's one of the most honest characters I've ever played. If he wasn't born overseas, I'd like to elect him as president. What you see is what you get. But he also taught me, when you're making a speech in front of your student's parents, you shouldn't call them 'stupid' and expect to hold your job."

Unlike Tahan and Landau's characters, Shaffer's "E" Gore didn't quite resemble the actor in real life, and for good reason: "E" Gore represents the sort of creepy, hunchbacked characters made famous by big-screen icon Peter Lorre.

And of course, as Shaffer learned, you can't have a Lorre-like character without doing a Lorre-like voice.

"About the second or third audition into the process, they asked me to do the character in my Peter Lorre voice, so immediately my mom rented me 'The Maltese Falcon,' and we already had 'Casablanca,' so we just sat there and watched," Shaffer recalled for me. "It was not only wonderful to study for the role, but to actually do it well enough to be hired for the part was such an honor and privilege."

The great thing is, Shaffer said, while Edgar's appearance and actions give off a strange vibe, he still marches to his own beat and has no apologies for it.

"That's the great thing about Tim's films -- they have distorted characters, but they are comfortable for who they are," Shaffer said. "They don't worry, tremble or try to sway to the ways of others. They are their own beings, and the movie gives a message that you can be comfortable in your own skin."

Landau said the real human emotions you get watching "Frankenweenie" helps set the film apart from others.

"A lot of people have said they were moved by the movie and they laughed a lot. It's because it's a character-driven movie, which you don't see anymore," Landau said. "The characters are so delineated and clear."

Another being that gives the emotional weight to the film is its top dog, Tahan added. After all, Sparky sparks the story of "Frankenweenie."

"Almost all people have had or do have a dog, so they can for sure relate to this," Tahan said.

While the film has everything you could hope for in terms of stunning visuals and real emotions, Shaffer added that "Frankenweenie" is truly made complete by its black-and-white presentation. The film feels timeless, which Shaffer credits to Burton's insistence that the tale be filmed in black-and-white -- and told the way that only Burton can.

"'Frankenweenie' puts you into a place that you can fantasize about, and then Tim Burton creates that and gives it to everyone from his mind," Shaffer explained. "It's a different world -- different from the stereotypical view of things. He's takes very ordinary things and makes them ornate and different and changes them into a perspective of his own."