You can’t manufacture charm. It’s an accidental product. It needs innocence and good-heartedness and the incandescent power to project both. It’s like the power of old cinema: whirr, shine, glow, flicker, enchant. Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie has so much charm it should be declared a danger zone. We are in charm’s way from start to finish. The pre-digital-style model animation – in black and white – is childlike, gawky, funny and irresistible.
The mock-gothic story of 10-year-old Victor, who reanimates his dog Sparky (killed by a car) in a Frankenstein-style lab in the family attic, then finds his science secrets co-opted by schoolmates who reanimate all their pets (with disastrous results), may seem familiar if you are a deep-cover veteran film nut. DCVFNs will know that Burton filmed this story as a live-action short for Disney in 1984. Disney suppressed it as too gruesome for kids; now the studio has turned a pariah into a payday. The animation helps. Nothing is fearful here that isn’t funny and endearing too: from Victor’s Vincent Price-lookalike schoolteacher (central European accent supplied by Martin Landau, Burton’s Oscar-winning Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) to the revitalised Sparky, a bouncy bull terrier with pin-bright eyes who is more appealing, if anything, with his patches, stitches and neck bolts.
As you’d expect from Burton, completing an unofficial animation trilogy (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride), every human character wears the haunted look this director loves. Wide eyes dark-rimmed with insomnia; noddy-toy necks atop gangling limbs; tiny mouths pursed as if to protect those secrets, joyful or appalling, that each of us carries from birth to death and in gothic tales back again. Clinching the film’s spell is its implied exhortation to the kid in each of us. Do try this at home. Do try bringing your dog back to life. Do tell your parents where to get off, if they want you to play baseball instead of following your science boffin dreams. Above all, do open the roof of your soul and expose your imagination to the electrical storms of life. That way, you might turn into Tim Burton, or at the least into your fullest, most creative self.
Good fences make good neighbours. Big walls make big enemies. Israel’s Palestine-excluding barricade – that concrete monster – is the war-maker in 5 Broken Cameras. This extraordinary diary movie was made by West Bank villager Emad Burnat. He kept filming the protest conflicts around the wall-building even as violence broke his equipment (more than once), never mind his heart and those of fellow locals witnessing the pillaging of their land and the daily, bloody stand-offs with the Israeli army.
Each broken camera records a human tragedy as it flickers with its last gaze. We witness a friend’s death by gas grenade. We witness the gruesome moment when fellow villager Adeeb, taken captive, is coldbloodedly shot in the knees. “We were born on this land,” Adeeb has uttered earlier, clasping an olive trunk with a simple meaningfulness of emotion unknown to free-world tree huggers.
At one point Burnat is shot and wounded. At another, a camera “takes a bullet” for him, saving his life. In a grimly comical later scene Israelis burst into Burnat’s own home, declaring it a “Closed Military Zone”. Suddenly we are in the theatre of the absurd, writ large, as concepts of ownership take on a surreal fluidity. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the spontaneous-seeming commentary was “scripted” by Burnat and co-director Guy Davidi. That seems a cheat, in a tiny way, in a film whose visual honesty is unsparing and unflinching.
Overpraised at Sundance, where it won the Grand Prize for best drama feature, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is like a series of dippy postcards sent by an enraptured child from a disaster zone. “Having a lovely time … total catastrophe … scenery gorgeous.” Little Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a curly-haired moppet, lives with ailing dad Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub, a bayou community the wrong side of a Mississippi levee. The past-tense voiceover by “Puppy” is a crazed blend of Mark Twain and Carson McCullers: raggedy southern rococo, kiddywink-visionary. (Of the hospital everyone is evacuated to after a hurricane she says: “It looked like a fish tank with no water … ”)
The film wants to keep morphing into mythic fantasy. Great tusked beasts walk the land in dreams; an escape vessel is like a motorised Noah’s ark. Puppy talks happily to the ghost-voice of her dead mother. With so much errant rapture, who cares about the bad weather? The music is the final come-on, a pop-inspirational score from Zeitlin himself that forever busks the “triumph of the human spirit” over minor setbacks of flood, famine and poverty. You can’t totally dislike the film; it’s too cuckoo in its Sunday Painting pantheism. But it is hardly the muscular response a nation needs when buffeted by real social-economic inequalities, real climate change, and still-real memories of Katrina, which left so many “picturesque” ghettos intact, no less cruelly primitive beneath the exoticism than Bathtub.
I kept expecting to see ticket barriers in Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa. The semi-autobiographical tale of a girl’s growing up in early 1960s London is shot in a series of sanitised vacancies like the rooms of an art gallery. Bare walls. Little humanising clutter. Plain lighting, mainly thrown straight on the protagonists’ faces. Room One: Teenaged Ginger (Elle Fanning) and best pal Rosa (Alice Englert) have problem parents but are united by their precocious political idealism (“Ban the bomb”). Room Two: Rosa fancies Ginger’s liberated, donnish dad (Alessandro Nivola) and begins an affair. Room Three: Ginger flees to the Aldermaston marches. Room Four; Room Five; Room Six … Finally here is the show’s end and we can buy a postcard and have a coffee.
You don’t go to Potter for warmth, lyricism and drama. That’s Terence Davies. But from Potter, the director of Orlando, Gold and The Tango Lesson, you expect at least something knotty, provocative, even exasperating-but-interesting. Ginger and Rosa, a British tale lent extra hollowness by largely American casting (even Annette Bening pops in, dowdied up as a cameo feminist), is an instance of the bland leading the bland: an anaemic rumba through the mazes of Memory Lane. The cinematographer, startlingly, is Robbie Ryan, who lavished such transports of colour, texture and subtle chiaroscuro on Wuthering Heights.
The funny animals are back in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Songs, shtick and digimated knockabout; cartoon visions of Africa, London and New York. You don’t have to be a child of four to enjoy this series, but it helps. Adults should take woolgathering material to occupy their minds. Sacha Baron Cohen’s lemur is still the scene-stealer, which may be reason – rivals’ jealousy – that he gets less to do in each sequel.