Friday, October 14, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Frankenweenie (2012)

Science is not good or bad, Victor. But it can be used both ways. 
That is why you must be careful.

If there's one thing that separates the current Tim Burton from the Tim Burton of the '80s and '90s, it's a sense of tactility.  No matter how fantastical the worlds of Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas are, there is a charm to their tangibility; the use of miniatures and expansive sets give the viewer the sense that they are walking through a fun, haunted house.  What Burton's more current films do a bit too much is - let's say it together now - overuse CGI.  Films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland may employ some of Burton's trademark designs, but many set pieces resemble a video game; far too busy and glossy for their own good.  This is a problem that plagues many films of the 21st Century, but I think I miss seeing movies of Original Burton's particular brand of movie making in particular.  Imagine my excitement in 2012 when I found out that Burton and Disney were making a remake of Burton's own short film Frankenweenie, using stop-motion and in glorious black and white!

Goodbye, Kitty

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a quiet and creative boy who lives in the conservative town of New Holland with his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) and his beloved dog Sparky (Frank Welker).  Tragically, Sparky is hit by a car and killed, which of course leaves Victor devistated.  Rather than accept Sparky's fate and move on, he gets an idea from his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) to use electricity to bring Sparky back to life.  After many classic movie homages, Victor's test is successful; a patched-up Sparky lives again!  Although he does have a few defects, including a tail that sometimes falls off and a need to feed off electricity to keep his energy up.  Other than that, he's the same old, lovable Sparky.  The other kids at school unfortunately find out about Victor's experiment, and with a big science fair contest coming up, they want in on how it was done. Victor's piers (some of whom resemble characters from the classic Frankenstein movies) attempt to bring back their own dead pets, which leads to chaotic results and plenty more movie homages.

Lightning does not hit a person, like a baseball or a cabbage...

There's so much to like about Frankenweenie, even if at the end of the day it probably could have been better.  One only needs to look at the original live-action short film from 1984 to see where the new version falters when it comes to genuine emotion, particularly when it comes to Victor's parents.  Their reaction to seeing their son's dead dog come back to life in the short is .  The night they find out, they try to comfort each other by saying things like,"Some parents worry about their kids getting into drugs.  I guess we're lucky."  Very little of that black comedy is here; the revelation that Sparky has been brought back from the dead is met with either casual or stilted reactions, which takes away some of the story's heart.  And speaking of the story, there are bits of padding all over and setups that go nowhere.  Much of the story is motivated by an upcoming science fair, but we never see it happen.  A girl next door with love interest potential (Winona Ryder) is squandered.  And Victor himself isn't given a very wide range of emotions, making it harder to get into his head in many crucial scenes.

You're alive! You're alive!

But enough of the bad, let's get into what I love about the movie; atmosphere, classic horror references, and that gorgeous stop-motion animation. The characters in Frankenweenie inhabit a world very similar to that of Edward Scissorhands. It's bleak suburbia, with an cartoonish emphasis on conformity, which is the perfect kind of world for a character like the undead Sparky to enter in and cause a panic.  The creepiest visual, however, isn't Sparky or the other students' undead pets; it's the nightmare-inducing science teacher.  Aside from being a great character, he also helps to demonstrate some of the thematic meaning behind the themes of the story, which is that you can't be afraid to ask questions about life just because no one else is asking them.  There's a scene in an auditorium that's very reminiscent of the creationism vs. evolution wars that happened in schools in the early 20th century (of which, though unspecified, appears to be when Frankenweenie takes place).  That sense of timelessness helps make the monster scenes toward the end more fun as well; kudos to anyone who gets the Gamera reference.  Just me then, huh?

My problem bigger...

While the film's aesthetics are important (the score by Danny Elfman is good, if not his most memorable), they all hinge on whether or not the animation is working.  Though it never quite reaches the heights of Corpse Bride in that regard, it's stunning to behold all the same.  Sparky, in particular, steals the show whenever he's onscreen, with his dog-like ticks and mannerisms and ability to express such clear emotion without having to say a single word.  In fact, he's much more expressive than any of the human characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was intentional. The designs of Victor's classmates are distinctive and strange, with some of their designs clearly based on characters from Frankenstein.  Just guess who the next door neighbor, Mr. Bergermeister, is an homage to.

I don't want him in my heart... I want him here, with me...

Frankenweenie isn't afraid to go dark in places (after all, a child losing a pet is a sensitive subject), but it's otherwise a very fun and lightweight movie.  Too lightweight in some places (the concept of moving on when a loved one dies is completely stomped out), but its strengths are definitely on the front lines.  What a shame the movie bombed at the box office, and in October no less.  It means we likely won't get anything from Disney or Burton any time soon of this caliber, so thank god we have Laika to give us stop-motion beauties in the interim.  Nonetheless, I've made Frankenweenie part of my annual Halloween viewing cycle, and I continue to find little details that I'd never seen before.  Beyond the movie's amusing jokes and excellent atmosphere, its best attribute is that wonderful tangibility I miss so much from Hollywood movies.

7 scary teachers out of 10