Monday, October 15, 2012

Love: Frankenweenie

When I was a kid, one of my go-to staples from the library or video store was Tim Burton's live action short Frankenweenie (1984).  Yes, live action.  Yes, this is not the first telling of this story.  Yes, there was a time when the short was packaged on its very own tape (it's shown up since in the special features on Nightmare Before Christmas).  It was blue and pink, I think, perhaps in an effort to distract kids from the fact they were willingly entering into a black and white movie.  I loved the original Frankenweenie, but even then it seemed conducive to something bigger.  Given the right reasons, the right attention to style, there was room for more story, for more characters in that brief half an hour. Still, there was no reason for a larger arc to happen. If the new Frankenweenie hadn't come along, I'd probably have continued life perfectly happy with memories of the old one as a one-off, a nostalgia tinted early film from a now 'overblown' director. I'd have been alright, but, luckily, Disney and Tim Burton couldn't let Frankenweenie lie.  They decided to resurrect the dog once again, and I'm insanely, dementedly glad they did.      
Where Laika's stop-motion ParaNorman was a dizzyingly inventive animated kid-slant on a more adult breed of horror film (the slasher, the zombie, etc), Frankenweenie is a lush, gorgeously goofy homage to the worlds inhabited by Universal's monsters.  Tim Burton's finger-prints are all over every frame of this feature. The character design is as comfortably familiar as it is inventive; big eyes, narrow chins, spindly arms and legs. The human characters walk on Edward Gorey pins and needles, prematurely exhausted as young children, the animals have tiny bulb noses. The suburban sprawl is a dark shadow of the pastel streets in Edward Scissorhands, the neighbors grotesque versions of the usual suspects.  Then, there's a sort of B-movie zeal in the homemade mad science labs and grave-robbing experiments. This is a film world untouched by digital gadgetry, where kids make things, have kites, carry jars of trapped critters, and cause chaos come science fair time. Frankenweenie is vintage Burton, a refurbished relic from a time that predates the explosion of big-budget fare following his crash landing on the Planet of the Apes.  It's an honest, genuine, ingenious little treasure that's endearingly, adorably wonderful as it delights in Burton's special blend of the heartfelt macabre.   
For those who didn't have the pleasure of growing up on the short film, allow me to outline the basic idea (and some of the snazzy new expansions): Frankenstein with a beloved dog.  That's really all it is.  Young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a gawky, hyper-intelligent kid whose only friend is his beloved dog Sparky. When Victor's dad attempts to push him to be someone he's not, the fates intervene, chaos reigns, and poor Sparky meets his tragic end.  Torn up by his loss and inspired by his new, sinister science teacher, Victor decides to try and secretly reanimate Sparky's corpse. Needless to say: it works. Sparky is a living dead dog whose appendages may sometimes fall off, but who happily scampers about as if nothing had ever happened.  Of course, a reanimated corpse is kind of a big deal, and Victor knows it's a fairly creepy, taboo thing to have even considered.  So, the pressure is on to keep Sparky a secret as his classmates suspiciously lurk about seeking solutions to their science fair woes.
As if the animation weren't already good enough, the massively expanded screenplay offers a seriously clever, relentlessly entertaining solution to the switch in form.  Where I'd hoped to be merely charmed by the film, I found myself in fits of hysterical giggling. There's a hearty dose of sharp dialogue here, the sort that works on multiple levels to acknowledge and comment on the dark implications while simultaneously keeping things light enough for the wimpiest of wimpy children.  Mr. Rzykruski's (Martin Landau) overtly dramatic science lessons were much appreciated by this kid, as were the seriously oddball comments of the spectre-like Weird Girl (Catherine O'Hara on helium) and Peter Lorre-esque adolescent Nassor (Martin Short).  There's something about the strange movements of the stop motion bodies (especially the aforementioned Weird Girl and her cat, Mr. Whiskers), too, that suggests the delightfully deadpan, and it's just plain hard not to laugh at the squiggly flailing limbs of a fallen clay poodle.  Whether the squiggly poodle grabs you or not, though, I recommend you go out of your way to see this perfect Halloween treat.  If you've found yourself missing the Tim Burton of yore, this is the return to form you may have thought wasn't coming.  Frankenweenie has style and substance, it's old school in all the ways that count. 

5 comments:

  1. Great review. It's great to have Burton back, I just wish he made this earlier in his career instead of now.

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    1. Maybe, though it's comforting to know there's still a chance of shaking himself out of the funk and making a movie without using Depp and Carter as crutches...

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  2. Great to hear Tim Burton is back to form after the disappointment of Dark Shadows and to a degree Alice In Wonderland. I enjoyed the original short of Frankenweenie as I do with Burton's earlier work. That's probably his best period.

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    1. Ha! For me, Alice was the low point. I'm apparently in the minority but man I thought that movie was awful!

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  3. Awesome review! Can't wait for this movie, I've been dyiyng for Tim to finally make something great again.

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