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

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…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

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 …

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).