Guest Movie Review: Frankenweenie
I’ve never been shy in my dislike of certain directors. Some are incompetent, some are lazy, some make me wary. And the Scott Stewarts or the Michael Bays of the world aren’t the worst offenders – at least you now where you stand with them. The worst offenders of all, for me, are the inconsistent. Some directors will come out with one or two great pictures, and then simply rest on their laurels. George Lucas captured everybody’s imaginations with his original Star Wars saga, only to ultimately alienate his biggest fans when he turned one of the galaxy’s greatest villains into a whiny brat. Everybody praised Catherine Hardwicke’s indie debut Thirteen, but even Stephenie Meyer fans have to admit that Twilight wasn’t all that great, and Red Riding Hood was even worse. And one-time genre hero Ridley Scott hasn’t had a great film in years – Prometheus didn’t even come close to his masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner. Some directors, once they’ve made a bit hit or two, seem to just sit back and phone things in – they become deeply unreliable, where once they were sure things.
You just knew I was leading up to Tim Burton, didn’t you? Once, he was one of the biggest and most unique directors in Hollywood. Visually speaking, he an innovator; his movies were cult classics and just-plain classics; Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and the Michael Keaton Batman films are remembered today chiefly due to Burton’s natural ability with gothic imagery, interesting, original stories and deep, resonating characters. Nowadays however, only his trademark “look” remains. Burton doesn’t adhere to the same principles that made him such an unconventional, worthy director, and even his box office receipts are suffering for it. His career isn’t doomed, of course, but the more duds he puts out like Planet of the Apes, Sweeny Todd, Mars Attacks!, and Dark Shadows, the less movie-goers trust him. That’s what makes Frankenweenie such a breath of fresh (or at least pleasantly recycled) air. It’s a remake of a short film he made for Disney back in the 1980s (it actually got him fired – long story), and the original was never given a proper theatrical release. Burton has always had a soft spot for the story, and it’s good to see him going back to his roots in his latest effort. At the very least it will be good to not be subjected to Frankenweenie’s first awful trailer anymore; the same trailer has largely been running since May’s Avengers release, and it never looked that good to begin with. With such an uneven history, should moviegoers follow Burton’s name all the way to the movies one more time?
In what looks like a recreation of Edward Scissorhands’ idyllic and secretive hometown, we meet young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie St. Cloud’s Charlie Tahan), a shy young boy who has few friends at school but a best one in his dog, the friendly and curious Sparky – they’re inseparable. When Sparky is accidentally killed by a car, Victor becomes inconsolable and even more withdrawn than usual, but he’s inspired by his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Marin Landau), who teaches him how electricity can trigger even deceased tissue. Victor sets up a lab in his attic, and unbeknownst to his parents, sets about reviving his dead friend. But while the operation turns out to be a success, the results are mixed: Sparky’s sudden reappearance scares the neighbors and leads to all kinds of mischief, putting the entire town of New Holland in danger.
Animation-wise, Frankenweenie feels closer to the style used in Burton’s animated feature Corpse Bride than his more beloved Nightmare Before Christmas. It makes sense; many of Corpse Bride’s animation artists and crew were the ones brought in by Burton to create this film, and the former’s more human-like characters make for better inspirations for the characters here than Jack Skellington or Oogie Boogie, and the one thing Burton needed to convey with his characters was a sense of small-town normalcy to contrast with the chaos to come. His stop-motion animation is more fluid than just about anything I’ve seen in theaters so far (impressive, considering he had a smaller budget than both ParaNorman and Pirates: A Band of Misfits), and there’s never a flicker of mismatched motion in any of his characters. The black and white palette is also inspired, with Burton not just parodying but also paying homage (in this and other ways) to the classic films that were his inspiration. The 3D sadly adds little to the show (never mind the unnecessarily expensive IMAX experience), so this might be the movie you pay the lower fee and see in classic 2D instead.
Burton also makes a concerted effort to establish his characters, and not his artwork, as the movie’s main selling point. Supporting characters are the fuel that drives Frankenweenie, more so than the relatively uninteresting Victor. Our lead is really only appealing in his relation to his undead pet, and together the pair make for a nostalgic partnership. But the movie is full of memorable characters, from the eccentric and brilliant Mr. Rzykruski (which is pronounced like “Rice Crispie”) to Victor’s varied and creepy classmates, including a troublemaking hunchback named Edward Gore. A talented ensemble cast that includes Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer and Robert Capron realizee the transformation, lending their credible voices to what was already a top-notch effort by the filmmakers.
But it’s Sparky’s movie, and Burton and crew do a commendable job by not turning this dog into… something other than a dog. Sparky is no genius, even by canine standards, and Burton does very little to anthropomorphize him. He reacts just like a real dog would; he is intensely loyal to his family, eager to please, easily confused. The dog portion of the “boy and his dog” dynamic is often the hardest thing to capture in this kind of movie, but Burton and crew made perfecting that element a priority, and it shows. The emotions conveyed in the characters’ eyes alone is almost magical; when Sparky goes from gleeful to confused, you witness the change easily.
For these reasons and more (check out Danny Elfman’s kick-ass soundtrack, for instance), Frankenweenie is one of the year’s biggest surprises. Burton is a bit stuck in his ways, and the story isn’t quite as robust as it could be – there’s too much emphasis on style and design, which is why Burton has become better producer than director. Still, this film is far better than any of his recent live-action features, almost making one wish the man would focus on the animated genre exclusively. Frankenweenie is a return to Burton’s character-driven screwball stage, and it tugs at the heart-strings. If you’ve ever had, currently have, or even want to have your own canine companion, then this film automatically becomes a must-see. It might be slightly undercooked, and still not as good as this year’s twin towers of ParaNorman and Brave, but it’s still a very good family feature that you’d be remiss to neglect. And maybe this will be the movie that cures Burton of that darned inconsistency.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor currently living in Boston. He posts most of his reviews on Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you were interested.