Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2012) Part 2

16. Frankenweenie

When I first saw and reviewed “Frankenweenie” in 2012, I was surprised by how much I like it. After re-watching all of Burton’s previous films, that surprise makes even more sense. The film was released following “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows,” two back-to-back career lows for the director. Against competition like that, even a merely above-average film looks great. Watching the film two years later, I suppose I was predisposed to like it. The film is an extended homage to classic horror about a boy and his dog. I love classic horror. I love dogs. I might have been the very specific niche audience “Frankenweenie” was designed to appeal to.

The film is a remake of a short film Burton directed at the beginning of his career. The short was live action while the feature length version is animated in the stop-motion style that Burton saw some success with in the past. The story is about the ironically named Victor Frankenstein, a lonely little boy living in the painfully square town of New Holland. Victor’s only friend is his dog, Sparky, and the two make silly monster movies in their backyard. Tragedy strikes when Sparky is hit by a car, robbing Victor of his only friend. The boy is so heartbroken, that he digs up his dog’s body and, living up to his name sake, brings Sparky back to life using lightning and mad science. Victor has Sparky back but hijinks ensues, especially when the other neighborhood kids discover his secret.

On “Corpse Bride,” Burton officially co-directed with animator Mike Johnson. With “Frankenweenie,” Tim takes all the credit, receiving the sole directorial notice.  However, a closer look will show that Trey Thomas was the “animation director,” which suggests that he actually directed the bulk of the movie, with Burton simply directing the voice actors. So let’s examine Thomas’ work. Perhaps inspired by Henry Selick’s “Coraline,” “Frankenweenie” has less in common with the slick CGI-assisted animation of “Corpse Bride” and resembles the Earthier animation of “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The focus isn’t on shiny, fancy shots and more on the characters and their world. The character designs, featuring the thin limbs, wide eyes, and dark hair, are right out of Burton’s sketch book. The film is, in general, more grounded then the director’s last foray into animation.

Helping give “Frankenweenie” a distinctive look is its beautiful black and white photography. Despite the colors on display, the film doesn’t indulge in as much old time atmosphere as you’d expect. There’s a little, such as fog billowing through an underground tomb. However, the choice mostly roots the movie to the past, displaying its simplistic roots. Shots of characters walking through a rain storm are done to establish a gloomy mood, instead of a frightening one. Thomas’ direction features a few visual flares, like a round hole in a wooden fence transitioning to a round clock. For the most part though, “Frankenweenie” is a grounded film, nostalgic for the simplicity of childhood.

Part of that nostalgia presents itself in the numerous references to the Universal Monsters and ‘50s creature features. Victor’s budding girlfriend has the first name of Elsa, like Elsa Lanchester. To further this reference, her pet poodle sports a white-streaked beehive hair-do. The town being named “New Holland” mostly seems to be done so the finale can be set in a burning windmill. Two of the supporting characters explicitly reference the classic “Frankenstein” series. The creepy Edgar is the story’s Igor, from his hump down to his spooky way of talking. One of Victor’s classmates, Nassor, is modeled after Bors Karloff, featuring his broad shoulders, wide forehead, flattop haircut, and his lisp. Just in case anyone missed the joke, Nassor winds up wrapped like a mummy by story’s end.

As obvious as the film’s love for classic horror of the 30s is, many of its most oddball references are to different eras. The eccentric science teacher that encourages Victor’s experiments is patterned after Vincent Price, in appearance if not voice. Rodan puts in a cameo early on. A giant turtle that heavily resembles Gamera lumbers through the last act, stomping on a police car like the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. The flock of mad Sea Monkeys act a lot like Gremlins. There are cute visual references to everything from “The Birds” to “Pet Sematary. “ Moments like these make it clear that “Frankenweenie” is as much for monster kids as it is for regular kids.

The movie is primarily about something else though. The love between a boy and his dog drives the story. Victor and Sparky are inseparable and the two cling to each other. Being a 87-minute long kid’s film, “Frankenweenie” can only spend so much time on the two’s living relationship. Sparky has to be dead before the twenty minute mark. This could have been a movie about a young boy learning to cope with death. Instead, it’s about how all-abiding love transcends everything. In the movie, Victor loves his dog enough to bring him back from the dead. In real life, we keep our loved ones alive through our memories.

The film wouldn’t be worth much if it couldn’t sell the emotional connection between the kid and his pet. Luckily, Sparky is adorable and charming. During the day, he gets into silly shenanigans, like slipping out a window, swallowing a fly, or chasing after the neighborhood cat. The film does a great job of recreating the way a dog moves and acts. Not as much time is spent on it as I would have liked but you still understand how much Victor loves Sparky. The bound between the two powers the whole film.

The primary theme of love seems a bit at odds with its other theme. Mr. Rzykruski is driven out of town by the ignorant parents for inspiring his students to ask too many questions. Victor is a budding scientist. Mr. Rzykruski recognizes this and has a heart-to-heart with the boy before leaving town. He tells him that a true scientist powers his experiment with love. If a scientist doesn’t love his experiment, the procedure will fail. I think the film was going for something but it kind of pulls this one out of its ass. I think most scientists would agree that emotional investment is actually more likely to ruin an experiment. This attitude is an intentional reversal of classic horror film’s general anti-science subtext. Yet it doesn’t jive well with the film’s true theme of love for lost family members.

Despite being animated, “Frankenweenie” feels more like a Tim Burton movie then his last two live action efforts. The movie is obviously awash with the director’s visual sense. There are no expressionistic sets and only a few black and white spirals. However, the character designs are obviously inspired by the director’s style. A look beneath the surface shows the script is full of Burton trademarks too. Victor is an outcast with few friends, whose obsession makes him too weird for the mainstream. Sparky becomes an outsider too, after rising from the dead, frightening the ignorant neighbors. It’s easy to imagine Elsa, the strange girl next door, as the tween version of “Beetlejuice’s” Lydia. Both are estranged from the grown ups around them and both have a morbid streak. Most notably, “Frankenweenie” returns the director to suburbia. The film shares a spiritual connection with “Edward Scissorhands.” Both are set in a seemingly ideal small town. Strange experiments gone on under the townfolks’ noses. However, the mad scientist and his creation ultimately are more heroic then the hypocritical and image-obsessed people who run the town. These deeper connections to the director’s past works makes “Frankenweenie” a more rewarding experience then his comparatively shallow last few films.

“Frankenweenie” is a remake of a short film. Which is all too obvious some times. The original short focused on Victor and Sparky. In order to reach feature length run time, the story had to be expanded. Thus we are introduced to a gaggle of Victor’s classmates. After discovering Sparky’s resurrection, these kids are determined to create their own undead pets. The antics of the Weird Girl, with her prophecy-pooping cat, and Toshiaki, a borderline racist stereotype, aren’t particularly deep characters. Scenes devoted to them, like Toshi and fat kid Bob making a soda pop jet pack, are mostly there to pad the run time. The last act, were their own resurrected pets wreck havoc on the town, is fun. The movie tries to tie it in with themes of love. That doesn’t totally wash. The sequences are mostly there to give the movie a big, action-packed ending and less because the story needs them.

Don’t get me wrong. Those scenes are fun. The Sea Monkies’ mischievous rampage is highly entertaining. Burton has flirted with kaiju movies throughout his entire career. Shelley the Giant Turtle attacking a carnival finally allows him to put a real giant monster in one of his movies. However, as the last act drags on, the movie looses some of its spark. The demonic Bat Cat becomes the primary villain for no reason. Sparky rescues Victor from the burning wind mill, a moment straight out of the original short. The movie drags on after this natural end point, the flying cat dragging Sparky back into the fire. Clipping this moment would have made “Frankenweenie’s” ending speedier and sweeter.

Another reason to like “Frankenweenie?” Tim left Johnny Depp and Helena at home. The film has the director reuniting with his original favorite leading lady. Or, at least, her voice anyway. Winona Ryder’s willowy, flighty voice is a good match to Elsa, a willowy and flighty character. Burton graduates Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short both voice multiple part. Both are best as Victor’s understanding, if slightly clueless, parents. Short successfully disguises his voice as Mr. Burgemeister, the grouchy town mayor that is responsible for most of the conflict. O’Hara’s weirdest parts are the spaced-out Weird Girl and the portly Gym Teacher. I was disappointed that Martin Landau didn’t pattern his voice after Vincent Price, even though his character was obviously inspired by the actor. The cast of child voice actors is less inspiring. Charlie Tahan doesn’t have much of a voice. His lack of vocal strength makes Victor seem too weak at times. Meanwhile, Atticus Shaffer is never believable as Edgar, a character that is hard to swallow to begin with. Considering veteran vocal performers Dee Bradley Baker and Frank Welker provided the animal noises, maybe Burton should have cast more pro voice actors.

The movie is awash in references to past films to the point that it even references Burton’s movies. Mostly through Danny Elfman’s score. Elfman’s music almost plays like a best-of collection. The foreboding themes recall the “Batman” films. The score even directly quotes the famous Batman theme. Meanwhile, Victor and Sparky’s friendship get their own theme, a sweeping choral piece inspired by “Edward Scissorhands.” The music's meloncholey tone are best heard when Sparky returns to the pet cemetery, realizing his fate, one of the moodiest, saddest moments in the film. And I have to mention the song that plays over the credits, Karen O.’s “Strange Love,” a gorgeous, adorable love song that perfectly matches the film’s quirky tone.

“Frankenweenie” wasn’t very successful at the time, being overshadowed at the box office by the similarly themed if vastly inferior “Hotel Transylvania.” Some thought it was too scary for kids. (The scenes of a Were-Rat roaming school might indeed be too tense for the really little ones.) Perhaps Disney is too short-sighted to realize that both of these things describe “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which has since become a universally beloved classic. “Frankenweenie” isn’t as good as that film. However, it probably has the distinction of being the director’s best film in quite a while. Or maybe I’m just partial to a spooky love song to a lost dog. [Grade: B]

You can’t predict the future. However, Burton’s next film, “Big Eyes,” is shaping up to be his most interesting project in years. A biopic about kitsch artist Margaret Keane, and her lawsuit against her credit-stealing husband, the film is delightfully free of the director’s usual cast members. It’s a smaller story, hopefully bringing “Big Fish” to mind. Considering Keane painted a portrait for Burton of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie, the director even seems to have a personal connection to the story. If the movie’s any good, we’ll find out on Christmas of this year. There might still be time for the director to turn his career around.

Thus concludes my Tim Burton Direcor Report Card. It still took longer then expected but twenty-three reviews and two completed retrospectives is probably decent work for a month and change. I’ll be back soon. Also, I never want to use the phrase “expressionistic” ever again.

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