Monday, October 8, 2012

FRANKENWEENIE is a Halloween Treat from Tim Burton


- Tim Burton gets a lot of undue flack from the peanut gallery. People complain about how his movies tend to have similar themes and aesthetics. And yes, Tim Burton has a distinct style, a number of pet themes, and a go-to troupe of actors that he uses often. But the idea that a filmmaker or artist must change his or her style in order to be taken seriously sort of irks me. Many great directors - from Hitchcock to Wes Anderson - have instantly-identifiable aesthetics and go-to themes. Sure, other notable filmmakers are more adaptable. But there's also nothing wrong with someone sticking to what they do best. To that end, FRANKENWEENIE is quintessential Tim Burton. It's got recurring themes that have appeared in Burton films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, and it's got the trademark, stop-motion animated style that was made famous by Nightmare Before Christmas (a style I happen to love). But don't knock the movie just because it treads on some familiar ground (not least of which is the Frankenweenie live-action short that Burton made for Disney back in the 80's). Because really, after a couple of creative misfires in the last few years - Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows come to mind - Frankenweenie is a great return to form for Burton. For me, it felt like a return to a passion project with minimal studio interference or corporate concerns behind it. It also felt like - not a shift in style for Burton - but a reminder of why we liked him so much in the first place. I'm glad there's a guy out there making these weird, dark, creepy, offbeat movies for a big audience. And Frankenweenie is a film that reminds you that Burton still has it in him to do a Tim Burton film that is as creatively strong as it is stylistically distinctive.

I don't want to spoil too much, but Frankenweenie's plot structure reminded me a bit of one of my favorite movies of the year so far - Cabin in the Woods. By that I mean ... Frankenweenie starts off operating on a very small, very personal storytelling scale, but then launches into a totally insane third act that really escalates the action. Not only that, but the surprising third act transforms Frankenweenie from a simple boy-and-his-undead-dog sort of story into something more: a loving, madcap homage to classic monster movies. In the same way that Cabin references any number of horror flicks from the 70's, 80's, and 90's, to too does Frankenweenie play dark tribute to Universal Horror, 1950's creature-features, old Hammer horror films, Japanese monster movies, and everything in between. If you have an affection for that stuff, it's just a ton of fun.

At the heart of the film though is the story about a boy (Victor Frankenstein) who uses mad-science methods to bring his dearly-departed pet, Sparky, back from the dead. One thing I like about the film though is that Victor is, yes, a goth-y oddball very much in the Burton mold. But the twist here is that so are ALL of the kids in Victor's class at school. The kids, along with their grimm-but-well-meaning science teacher - Mr. Rzykruski (awesomely voiced by the great Martin Landau), are all outsiders - and its the adults of their sleepy suburban berg that are the uptight squares. To be sure, Victor's mom and dad (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) are perfectly loving parents. But Victor's dad also gives his son a whole speech about how he should be playing baseball instead of working on his science experiments. Meanwhile, the town's shady Mayor leads a campaign against Mr. Rzykruski, even as his droll daughter Elsa (Winona Ryder) quietly rebels against him. But Burton brilliantly spins things differently than most kid-friendly animated flicks. He posits that *all* kids have an inner outsider, and that even as the town's kids embrace Victor's mad-science, it's the adults who get freaked out by anything that's out-of-the-ordinary and boundary-pushing. The moral lesson here - and it's a good one - is that the passion of one's inner-kid is what can drive great discovery and change, whereas the drollness of adulthood can stifle it.

With that said, the great fun of the film is seeing all of Victor's classmates - many themselves homages to classic horror icons - race to emulate Victor's mad-science experiments. They're all trying to one-up each other in the upcoming Science Fair, and each kid is determined to have their own version of dead-pet-reanimation on display. Victor's friend and rival, Edgar E. Gore, is the future fan-favorite here, and the funniest and generally most awesome character in the movie. Hilariously voiced by Atticus Shaffer from the TV show The Middle, E. Gore's high-pitched Igor voice is fantastic, as is the character's pint-sized mix of cuteness and would-be evil. Take any kid to this one, and I guarantee they'll be talking like E. Gore for days to come (as will I).

As far as the animation goes - it's pretty gorgeous, as you'd expect. The black and white may be a turn-off for some, but it's so perfect for this film that you can't really argue with it. But there are some incredible, evocative shots captured in this stop-motion world (including many great little easter-egg tributes to horror classics). And the character design is awesome, from the human characters, to the reanimated Sparky, to the crazy monsters that wreak havoc towards the end of the film. Great work from Burton and his crew of stop-motion animators.

What I love about Frankenweenie is that it is a perfect movie for kids, but also doesn't pay any lip-service to a kid audience. That's what bothered me a bit about Paranorman - the weirder and subtler humor was offset by too many lame and obvious gross-out gags and the like. But Frankenweenie is a classic story that is, in many ways, about childhood - but also works on a number of levels that kids and adults will enjoy. There's some great humor, there's some genuine creepiness, and there's a nice message at the movie's core that seems to come from the heart (there's even a poignant and somewhat biting monologue about the importance of science from Martin Landau's character, that I was pleasantly surprised to hear). The film can be a bit slow and methodical at times - especially in its first half. You can argue that the story is a bit thin and needed a bit more meat to make it not feel padded. But overall, this is vintage Tim Burton. It's a movie that does reinforce a lot of his favorite themes, but when done well, these are themes that I never really tire of: embrace the weird, embrace the strange, and from that passion, great things can arise.

My Grade: A-

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