Skip to main content

Your dog is alive!

Frankenweenie
(2012)

Tim Burton may have gone full circle, from making fare forcibly skewed towards Disney’s more sugary sensibilities (even if the 1984 Frankenweenie short came about during their “dark period”) to actually seeing the world that way. I don’t count myself among the many who believe Burton has completely lost his way, but I do wish there was more of the unfettered abandon found in his first couple of films.


His movies have always been stylistically and narratively erratic, and there are few unqualified successes in his filmography (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood). Yet, most of the time, his offerings are at least diverting. The problem lies in his “brand” whackiness; it can easily lead to fatigue setting in (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). That feeling of overkill of the same schtick; “Stop it now, Tim. Please”. Nevertheless, I would even defend several of his movies that are considered indefensible (Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows).


Frankweenie, from its title down, is a cute riff on Universal’s 1930s adaptations of Mary Shelly. As such, the only disappointing thing about it is that it is a riff that never surprises. This is exactly what you’d expect of a Burton movie about a Frankenstein mutt. It’s the director’s second animated feature, following on from the so-so Corpse Bride (many assume he helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas, but that was Henry Selick who was also responsible for the first rate Coraline). Visually, this is highly accomplished, as you’d expect if you surrounded yourself with a gang of animation pros. But the slickness of the stop-motion (so seamless, I thought it must be CG) is only matched by the manufactured quirkiness and unthreatening gothic veneer.


While I’m sure they saw potential dollar signs when Burton announced his intention to make a full-length feature from Frankenweenie, I doubt that Disney was overly keen when opted to shoot it in black and white. Sure, it can be a draw under the right circumstances (The Artist) but are kids really going to want to watch something devoid of colour? It seems not; the movie is his least successful, but for his other black and white picture (Ed Wood). Credit to him for going that route (as the director of one of the studio’s biggest hits, Alice in Wonderland, it’s little surprise Disney indulged him) but it only adds to the sense hat this is inconsequential whimsy; a side project he turned to when he wasn’t working with Johnny.


John August’s screenplay is his fifth for Burton (although Dark Shadows was rewritten, much to August’s chagrin) and it repeats the set up and gags of the short fairly closely. There’s the road accident where Victor’s (Charlie Tahan) dog Sparky meets his doom, the bolt in his neck, his tail falls off and he springs leaks, the pet graveyard (“Goodbye Kitty”), next-door poodle Persephone complete with Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, and the overt lift of the end of Frankenstein as the dog is chased to an old mill. Burton’s short is lovingly adorned with an array of cartoonish actors, from Paul Bartel as the next door neighbour to Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall as Victor’s parents.


The all-out parody of the feature version is adorned with more overt grotesques. If Victor’s parents are fairly normal (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) his fellow school kids are a collection of weirdos and crazies. His teacher, Mr Ryzkruski (Martin Landau) is modelled on Vincent Price. Edgar E Gore (Atticus Shaffer) is a delightfully horrid little hunchback, a little too eager to experiment with dead creatures (first fish, and then a decomposing rat); “Your dog is alive!” Nassor (Short again) is a Boris Karloff lookalike. Winona Ryder returns to Burton land after a more than 20-year gap as Elsa van Helsing. Best of all is “Weird Girl” (O’Hara again), an original character who exceeds any of the other new inventions. Her cat Mr Whiskers has premonitionary dreams and she offers gifts of cat faeces (“Did you get that out of the litter box?”) Both she and her cat possess eyes like saucers, and Mr Whiskers looks permanently startled/less than keen on his owner’s weird tendencies.


Indeed, it’s in setting the scene that Burton’s movie is at its best. The third act monster rampage is awfully familiar and isn’t especially witty or clever (there’s a monster rat, a bat cat (Mr Whiskers), a mummy hamster, a kaiju turtle and some sea monkey monsters); such homages have been done much better many times before.


The design of Sparky is a shameless rip-off of Family Dog (on which Burton was Executive Producer and Design Consultant) and more effective in that regard than the short’s English bull terrier. But Burton seems to get cold feet over the grizzlier aspects of his premise; Sparky clearly starts out as a rotting pet, surrounded by flies and with bits dropping off him. I expected the decay element to develop, but Sparky becomes disappointingly sanitised and sanitary.


Burton also feels the need to tack on an overt moral absent from his short. Sure, the 1984 film features a “Don’t judge by appearances” subtext (rendered redundant here by the freak show townsfolk) but there’s also an absence of judgement on the rights and wrongs of returning a canine from the grave. The director has never been especially interested in moralising, but he occasionally falls victim to the curse of many an otherwise decent filmmaker; sentiment wins out. Emotional range has never been his strongest suit and he wisely avoids such material most of the time (Big Fish might be his only film where the emotional content is justified and has some depth to it). 


Here, the “against nature, dangers of science-unleashed” theme is embarrassingly dispensed with, but not in a glib rambunctious manner (as might have been seen from the director of Beetlejuice, rather than the guy who called the shots on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The film has added multiple manifestations of lightning-struck pets in order to flesh out a third act absent from the half hour incarnation. So the message becomes, “It’s okay to reanimate corpses just as long as you really love them” (an endorsement for necrophiliacs everywhere, then). You can tell Burton doesn’t really “feel” his message; it’s necessary baggage for a family movie (“Reanimating a corpse. It’s very… upsetting” is more illustrative of his natural disregard for such attitudes).


Apparently Burton is developing Beetlejuice 2; is it too much to hope he can summon the anarchic revelry of the original? Frankenweenie is a wholly respectful expansion of the short. Which is part of the problem. It’s the sort of thing Burton could knock-off in his sleep. Perhaps next year’s Big Eyes will prove a shot in the arm, and he’ll start trying again. At very least, it has the pedigree of the writers of his best film (Ed Wood; Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski).


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Maybe back in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way, but today you got to play ball.

From Here to Eternity (1953) (SPOILERS) Which is more famous, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf in From Here to Eternity or Airplane! spoofing the same? It’s an iconic scene – both of them – in a Best Picture Oscar winner – only one of them – stuffed to the rafters with iconic actors. But Academy acclaim is no guarantee of quality. Just ask A Beautiful Mind . From Here to Eternity is both frustrating and fascinating for what it can and cannot do per the restrictive codes of the 1950s, creaky at times but never less than compelling. There are many movies of its era that have aged better, but it still carries a charge for being as forthright as it can be. And then there’s the subtext leaking from its every pore.

To our glorious defeat.

The Mouse that Roared (1959) (SPOILERS) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove . Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never that impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux- Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs with that, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull.