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 never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) (SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection , though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental. Appreciation for