Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Toon-arama: Frankenweenie (2012)

by tryanmax

In 1984 while working for Disney, Tim Burton created a half-hour, black & white, live-action film about a boy’s love for his dog as perhaps only he could imagine it. In a tale closely following the 1931 Universal Frankenstein, young Victor’s dog Sparky gets hit by a car, so he takes inspiration from his science class to bring the beloved pet back to life. Burton was fired from Disney for his efforts.

Twenty-eight years later, Disney invited him back to expand the project into a full-length, stop-motion feature.

With as much time as Burton has spent focusing on remakes and re-imaginings lately, it feels very refreshing to see him put out something of his own again, even if it is a reworking of his own material. Frankenweenie is possibly his best effort since the 1990s. Still, he’s not entirely out of the derivative woods with this one, either.
The heart of Burton’s tale remains the same, but the embellishments are plenty. This time, when Victor’s schoolmates discover what he has done they don’t react with horror. Instead, they launch into a sort of sci-fi arms race, spurred on by the prospects of winning a trophy at the upcoming science fair. Each attempts (and succeeds) to bring a deceased pet back from the grave with a wide array of monstrous results. These macabre experiments happen to coincide with the town of New Holland’s Dutch Days festival, which the children’s monsters set about terrorizing. It is up to Victor and Sparky to put a stop to the chaos they helped create.

The twist on Frankenstein is, of course, the primary gimmick. I don’t fault Burton one iota for that. But what separates this self-remake from the original more than the runtime or change of medium is the barrage of other film references this movie is packed with. Some of them, like E. Gore and the Bride-of-Frankenstein poodle, are essential. Others are central to the plot: all the kids’ creations pay tribute to classic monsters, the Mummy, the Wolfman(rat), the Invisible Man (goldfish), even Gamera (the turtle-monster from the Godzilla films).
Beyond that, the references are laid a little too thick and actually become distracting. The plot is not hard to follow, but the viewer is still pulled away with all the “what’s that from?” moments. Oh, and did I mention that, in addition to classic horror tributes, Burton also nods to his own prior work and whatever else he fancies? Of course, younger viewers wouldn’t know many of the more obscure references. (Do kids today even know who the Burgermeister is?) For them, the movie is good fun with some mild thrills.

It’s almost impossible to comment on the quality of the animation. It is, in a word, perfect. Taking a lesson learned from Corpse Bride—that stop-motion can actually be too fluid (many critics and fans were convinced it was CGI)—Burton deliberately chose to make this film’s animation slightly more crude, to charming effect. The technique is paired with black & white photography which, as far as I know, hasn’t been done since it was the only option, and the film is set in the same indistinct mid-20th century setting that some of Burton’s earlier films resided in. Once again, Burton teamed up with Danny Elfman for the musical score. While I can’t say that this score left any particular impressions on me, it is suited to the action and helps drive the pace. In combination, the aesthetic choices achieve a sense of timelessness that suits the film well and portends for it a good future.
All in all, Frankenweenie is a return to form for Burton. For fans who fell in love with Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, this is a long overdue propitiation.

(BTW, the 1984 original short is, inexplicably, not included in releases of the full-length feature. Instead, it is included with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Oh, and HERE if you’re interested.)


AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks for the review! I saw this and I liked it a good deal. I will say that anything Burton does these days seems pretty derivative, but at least he picked the right project to be derivative over because it felt like he was home again.

On the constant references, this is becoming a pet peeve of mine. People like references to prior films and books and the such, but just doing it to do it feels like pandering to me. I am much more impressed when they actually work it into the story in some meaningful way or if they find "the perfect/natural moment" and do it in a clever way. I think there was a little of both here. Some was clever and fun, some was just "let's see how many films we can reference."

All told, I liked this, but not as much as Nightmare Before Christmas, but better than most of his other works.

Kelly said...

I hadn't heard of this, but you make me want to see it. Thanks!

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I'd say this one falls right between Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride in terms of overall quality. It's been awhile since we've seen Burton improve on himself.

tryanmax said...

Kelly, you're welcome. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

djskit said...

I have to say, there is a certian bit of built in creepyness in all of Burton's work - especially so in his animated items. A certain mean-spirited darkness that I can't quite place my finger on. I made it 10 minutes into the Nightmare Before Chrismas before shutting it off - I neither enjoyed it or wanted to enjoy it. This is not to knock his ability as a film-maker - he is a genuine talent and I can see and appreciate his various levels of creativity and innovation. But it does not speak to me in a positive way.

tryanmax said...

djskit, I don't know what to tell you. Certainly a film about Halloween monsters wanting to take a crack at Christmas is bound to be creepy and dark. I don't see any mean-spiritedness beyond the characters that are meant to be so. Is perhaps "macabre" the word you're looking for? I can say that Frankenweenie is much less macabre than Nightmare. The aesthetic is much more like Edward Scissorhands. In any case, if it rubs you the wrong way, that's all there is to it, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie recently... I liked it, but I didn't love it, and I don't think it'll be as highly regarded in 20 years as Nightmare is now. I felt it dragged a little bit in the middle, too.

It WAS, however, nice to see Burton back in his natural element (such as it is) after Alice in Wonderland and all the other remakes.

And his next movie sounds pretty cool. Synopsis in second paragraph. A sequel to Beetlejuice is also being rumored.

tryanmax said...

Scott, It's definitely no Nightmare but it's good enough to ride it's coattails, IMO. I agree there are some slow spots, but I always felt Nightmare dwells too much on Oogie Boogie, as well.

That next project sounds like a real different turn for Burton. I do hope there is not a Beetlejuice sequel. I feel like that has aged so well, another installment would only tarnish it.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

A Beetlejuice sequel has been rumored for years. They even offered it to Kevin Smith in the mid-90s. Smith politely declined, saying, "I think we've said all there is to say with Beetlejuice."

I think Beetlejuice might be Burton's most interesting movie. Not his best, but his most interesting. As a 7-year old, much of the humor must've went right over my head, along with a lot of the death references (like the line about people who commit suicide working as civil servants in the afterlife).

I appreciate and enjoy it much more today.

T-Rav said...

I probably liked Beetlejuice the best of all Burton's movies--whether it was his best or not, I couldn't say. I saw the highlights of a proposed screenplay for a sequel, and suffice to say, I think it would be a bad, bad idea to do it.

On Frankenweenie, something about the trailer really turned me off, and I have had zero interest in seeing it. If it's on TV, maybe I'll watch it after reading this review, but probably not until then.

tryanmax said...

T-Rav, in truth, Frankenweenie is probably better suited for TV than theatrical release. It could be pared down a bit and, if it were, it'd make an excellent Halloween special. At this juncture, though, I'd still say it's worth a trip to and a dollar at the Redbox.

I'm not sure if Beetlejuice is my favorite, but I think there's more of Burton in that than any other of his films. By some standard, that must make it his best. Honestly, I think Batman is my favorite Burton film.

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry, I haven't been around. Work has kept me busy.

Believe it or not, my favorite Burton film is actually Sleepy Hollow. That's the one time I think that his quirkiness married well with a well-told story without overwhelming it.

My second favorite is Nightmare Before Christmas.

T-Rav said...

Wow, dummy me forgot about both Batman and Sleepy Hollow. Eh, I still give the edge to Beetlejuice for being so out of left field and yet working so well; but Sleepy Hollow is a very close second, and I like his Batman as well. I recognize that Nightmare Before Christmas is a quality film and it has some very catchy songs, but it never really connected with me the way those others did.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, "Connect' is a good way to put it. I agree about Nightmare -- it's a very high quality film, but I connect better to both Sleepy Hollow and Batman (forgot about Batman).

Koshcat said...

I liked this movie and so did my kids. My 5 y/o son ran out of the room in tears towards the end when he thought the dog had died. We had to drag him back in to see the ending. perhaps that is why I have a soft spot for this movie; it touched his heart a little.

tryanmax said...

Koshcat, that sounds like a win for Burton to me. How sweet!

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