Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's Alive: FRANKENWEENIE


A black-and-white, stop-motion animated, family-friendly monster movie about life, death, and the ethics of scientific research, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is definitely not the kind of film that you see every day. It’s a skillful, inventive expansion of his 1984 live-action short of the same name. In this telling, it all starts when little Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) reacts in horror and disbelief when he sees his beloved dog Sparky flattened by a car. His parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) try to help their mourning son the best they can, but his movement through the stages of grief gets stuck at denial. And so, being a precocious, science-minded young fellow, he uses the excuse of the impending science fair to do a little reanimation in his spare time.

The core sentimental pulse of the story is simple, resting on nothing more than the love between a boy and his dog.  But when said love involves harnessing lightening to spark Sparky back to life, it’s clear that complications are inevitable. Burton, working with a screenplay by John August, has created a lovingly handcrafted little world into which this new scientific discovery can be introduced. Victor’s science teacher, a stern European √©migr√© (Martin Landau) has put the love of science and competition into his class, a creepy collection of kids (voiced by Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, and James Hiroyuki Liao) with huge eyes, furrowed brows, and a jumble of thick accents and odd traits. One looks like Igor; another owns a poodle that looks a little like Elsa Lanchester. They’re a cast of characters that are poised for some kind of trouble. It’s only a matter of time before Victor’s secret resurrection becomes known, not only to his parents, but also to his classmates who will only be too eager to best him in pursuit of the top prize at the science fair.

This is a sharply made film, lovely in its high-contrast homage to Universal’s monster movies of the 30s and 40s filtered through a standard family film framework. It is also, of course, beautifully, obviously, clearly, a Tim Burton Film. It’s not just that he’s adapting his own earlier work. Here he’s made not his best film, but one of his most self-referential. One can find connections between this film and his earlier works: from stop-motion (Corpse Bride), black-and-white cinematography and Landau (Ed Wood) to Ryder and O’Hara (Beetlejuice); from a focus on coming to terms with the death of a loved one (Big Fish) to a quirky small town with a penchant for mob mentality (Edward Scissorhands). Not just a well-intentioned romp through his own greatest hits, Frankenweenie is the work of director taking some of the big ideas that course through his career and reworking them at a smaller scale.

Much like the dog at the center of the story, the film is a patchwork of inspirations that have been sewn together, repurposed for new life. They’re also both charming and appealing in an eager-to-please way. There’s a jolt of energy coursing through this rather short feature – just 87 minutes, including the end credits – that really ramps up in the delightful climax that finds Victor’s competitors trying their hands at reanimation. The sequence that follows is a cheerfully macabre – a little girl’s cat appears to explode with a grim, hilarious pop and fizz – smash of monster mayhem, building slowly to an agreeably towering goofy monstrosity. If Burton overdoes the sentimentality in the final seconds of the picture, arriving (as he did in his early short) at perhaps the wrong way for little Victor to get over the death of his dog, it can almost be forgiven. After all we’ve been through with these two, it’s just nice to know that the love between a boy and his dog can be immortal.

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