March 16, 2013

Tim Burton Finds Himself Once More With FRANKENWEENIE

"They like what science gives them but not the questions, no.  Not the questions it asks."
I made a real effort to try and see as many of the Oscar contenders as possible before this year's Academy Awards, but Frankenweenie is the one movie that fell through the cracks.  Since I'm a big fan of animation, particularly stop-motion, I figured it would make a good addition to my early viewing menu, adding a little bit of genre variety.

Like most of the English-speaking world, I adore all of Burton's early films, but I feel like in the last few years he's kind of disappeared up his own asshole.  I really like Big Fish although I think it's the least Burton-y of his films, and while Mars Attacks has some amazing moments, it's pretty uneven.  Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Sweeny Todd, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows...they all sort of blend together in my head as a one giant mess of a decade that make me wish that Burton and Johnny Depp had parted ways in 1995.  The last truly great movie Burton directed was Ed Wood and somehow that was nearly 20 years ago.

So it's easy to see why most critics hailed Frankenweenie as a return to form for the director and his best film in years.  They're right, but it's not quite the home run I'd hoped it would be.  More like a solid triple.

First off, let me just say that technically speaking, the film is simply wonderful.  Burton has long been fascinated with the style of stop-motion animation.  In fact, the Martians from Mars Attacks were originally supposed to be stop-motion instead of CGI, but the studio put the kibosh on that idea for budgetary reasons.  (Too bad, I would love to see that movie.)  While I admire Burton for continuing to utilize an artform that could have easily died off years ago, I have to admit that I'll take Coraline or Paranorman over Corpse Bride or Nightmare Before Christmas any day.  (I know I'm in the minority there, but for some reasons Nightmare just never really grabbed me.  Maybe it's because I don't really like musicals.)  Everything about this movie simply reeks of classic Burton, from the long limbed character design, to the suburban town with a dark undercurrent of distrust and violence.  It's not surprising that the film's style harkens back to Burton's roots, as it's actually a feature length animated version of Burton's first film, which was a live action short I was lucky enough to see when I was a kid.

The story centers on young Victor Frankenstein, a sort of Burton-cipher who has no friends in his Burbank-esque town of New Holland save his trusty dog Sparky.  He makes short films in his attic and he's more interested in science than in sports, much to the dismay of his parents.  When his father convinces him to give baseball a try, he hits the ball out of the park only to see Sparky chase it out into traffic and get hit by a passing car.  Victor is heartbroken, but when his new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski demonstrates a rudimentary form of reanimating tissue by running an electrical current through a dead frog, Victor becomes convinced he can bring Sparky back to life.  His success inspires his classmates to reincarnate their own fallen pets, although the results are comically disastrous.

Much like The Monster Squad, there's real love for the classic monster movies on display here.  We get a mummy hamster, and invisible fish, a cat transformed into a were-bat, a Godzilla turtle and my favorite, Sea Monkeys from the Black Lagoon.  Victor's classmates include the hunchbacked Edgar "E" Gore and Elsa Van Helsing, whose tall-haired black poodle ends up with the classic Bride Of Frankenstein white stripes atop her head.  The film's climax features an angry mob with flaming torches chasing Sparky to the town's windmill, which is of course set on fire.  The black and white aesthetic, another element I'm a total sucker for, totally works in the film's favor (the original short was similarly shot) and it really is a pleasure to watch.

The relationship between Victor and Sparky is a big part of what makes the film so successful.  I never had a dog growing up, mostly because my sister was terrified of the creatures until she got to high school.  The irony is that my parents had planned to get a dog but changed their minds when my mother got pregnant with me.  (The running joke in my family is that I was supposed to be a beagle.)  A week after I moved to college, they finally got themselves a dog named Buster, but he always felt like my parents' dog, not mine.  My wife, on the other hand, always had a dog growing up.  When Jamie and I started dating, her dog Nemo was included as part of the deal.  The love between a person and their dog is a very specific sort of relationship that really can't be understood until you have a dog of your own.  Not only did I previously not appreciate it, I didn't even fully grasp my lack of understanding.  Now that we're married Nemo is 100% my dog as well, although I'll admit that my relationship with him will never compare to Jamie's if only because she got him as a newborn puppy and has taken care of him from day one.  This is all by way of saying that seeing Sparky get run over by a car, and more pointedly, seeing Victor watch it happen right in front of him, unable to save his best friend from death, is a very powerful moment.  It works on its face, but as a dog owner it's even more devastating.  Jamie and I were happy to have Nemo curled up on the couch with us for the rest of the movie.

My biggest problem comes in the film's conclusion, which just feels too easy.  (Spoilers follow.)  After Sparky saves Victor from the burning windmill, he's pulled back in by the were-bat, where he's killed for a second time.  The townsfolk band together and, hooking jumper cables up to their car batteries, they revive Sparky once again and everyone lives happily ever after.  Look, I get that this is essentially a kids movie so Burton doesn't really want to end on a downer, but something about that moment rang false for me.  Earlier in the film there's a PTA meeting where the mob of parents decide to get rid of Mr. Rzykruski because they don't like the science he's teaching.  ("When I was a kid, Pluto was a great planet!")  While religion isn't mentioned here, it's hard to ignore the obvious comparison to the recent controversies with the Texas school board, or creationists around the country trying to overrule proper science in favor of religious dogma.  The parents of New Holland fear what they don't understand and rather than learn something that might challenge their familiar world, they'd just as soon expel the person posing the uncomfortable questions.

Meanwhile, one of the central themes of the original Frankenstein story is the moral quandry of man attempting to play god and dabbling in a science he doesn't fully understand.  It's made clear that, while Victor has figured out the method to bring back the dead, he doesn't properly understand why it works.  Mr. Rzykruski asserts that Victor is successful where his classmates are not because he really loves Sparky, while the others only interested in winning a science fair.  It's a nice thought and it's an easy way to wrap it up for the kids in the audience, but it's pretty intellectually unsatisfying.  Victor has learned nothing.  Half the town has been wrecked because he messed with something he didn't fully understand for his own selfish reasons.  The idea that it's okay because it was done out of love feels like murky case of "ends justify the means."  Much like the townspeople of New Holland, Burton doesn't seem to be interested in the questions his film is asking.  I'd rather have seen Sparky stay dead, but end with Elsa's Bride Of Frankenstein dog Persephone having Sparky's puppies.  That way Victor learns his lesson but he also gets a new best friend.

I thought that Brave winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar was kind of nonsensical, as it's certainly one of Pixar's weaker efforts.  I think Frankenweenie was certainly a more interesting, better executed film, although I still probably would have voted for Paranorman or Wreck-It Ralph.  Regardless, I've grown tired of hating on Burton in last few years.  The guy is immensely talented and I take no joy in the apathy that's set in with his recent efforts.  Frankenweenie is a breath of fresh air in a filmography that's become stale.  There's no word yet on his next directing project, but here's hoping it builds on this success.

And if we're lucky, Johnny Depp will be unavailable.

Title: Frankenweenie
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (TV)

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