Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Frankenweenie Movie Review

Tim Burton has spent his entire filmmaking career searching for the magic of those old science fiction and horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s the stuff he grew up on and it obviously touched him on a personal level because almost everything he does pays homage in some way to them. Ed Wood is both biography and homage to the director of the cheapest “so bad it’s good” B-movies. His latest film, and first stop-motion animation as director, is Frankenweenie, which happens also to be a remake of an early short film he made in 1984, before he ever stepped behind the camera for a full-length feature. The original short film runs 25 minutes and stars Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall as the parents of a boy who loves his dog, Sparky, and directing cheap 8mm films in the back yard (like Burton did as a boy). After the dog dies in an accident, the boy uses science to reignite life in his dead beloved, much to the dismay of the townspeople, who, in the spirit of Frankenstein, burn down an old windmill in an attempt to destroy the grotesquery of resurrected death.

Burton’s original short film is recreated almost identically using puppets and animated dolls, with the addition of more story material by John August to fill out the running time to feature length. The boy, named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), of course, now has a school life with a hilarious cast of characters that each serve as homage to different icons of the horror genre. There’s a boy who physically resembles Frankenstein’s monster with his flattop head and broad shoulders, a girl with a dead-eye stare who carries a cat around, a Japanese boy (a joke that takes almost the whole film to reach its payoff), and a boy who rather unfortunately looks a lot like Igor. Winona Ryder voices Victor’s crush, Elsa Van Helsing, the brooding girl next door. Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara provide voice life to Victor’s parents as well as a host of additional characters.

It all mostly plays like a compendium of sly references to Creature Features and all sorts of monster movies from the first century of cinema. In addition to Victor’s classmates there’s the science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), looking like an even more stretched version of Vincent Price, one of Burton’s childhood heroes and an icon of old monster movies. When the rest of the kids find out that Victor brought his dog back to life, they each set out on their own to dig up some old pet or other creature, all in the name of winning the science fair. What follows is an onslaught from all manner of monster: a turtle becomes Gamera, stomping through Main Street; Sea-Monkeys become creatures closely resembling both Ghoulies and Gremlins, those icons of the 1980s; Colossus, an ironically-named hamster, comes slithering from his tomb looking like The Mummy; a rat becomes a Were-rat; and a cat gets crossed with a bat and becomes a Vampire. The astute observer and aficionado of classic monster movies will find Frankenweenie to be a kind of Easter egg hunt with all the visual gags and references peppered throughout the sets and setups. Apart from that, however, the animation is gorgeously crafted and photographed in black and white to recall those old films. How could anyone even think to make this movie in color?

Even if the film weren’t a series of clever homages, it would remain an important piece of work for children to see. August throws in not only the moral lessons to be learned from lynch mob mentality – those same lessons that James Whale taught us in Frankenstein – but also takes digs at the current state of political discourse vis-à-vis education. When the townspeople gather in a town hall meeting to discuss the lessons of the new science teacher, he excoriates them for being ignorant of science and having puny brains. It’s a hilarious moment that reminds you of what you would love to tell all those people who insist on teaching absurd things like “Intelligent Design” in science class. I have no doubt that those people, as well as climate change deniers, are high on the list of August’s and Burton’s targets in that scene.

I think any film that can entertain as well as Frankenweenie does while also serving as a representation of some key discussions of the day deserves a strong recommendation. This is the kind of film Burton was born to make and it’s where his skill set is put to best use. It’s macabre, interesting, satirical, funny, and heartfelt without ever being heavy-handed or feeling like something the Goth kids in high school would have made to show just how much they were hurting inside, which is how I often come away feeling after Burton’s films sometimes. This one’s a keeper.

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