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

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …