chris kilby -> RE: Frankenweenie (31/10/2012 4:54:14 PM)
Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s latest love letter to the “horrors” of his childhood. He’s sentimental is old Tim. For a goth, like.
A stop-motion animation remake of Burton’s quirky live action short of the same name about a boy and his dog. His, um, re-animated dead dog. Called Sparky. What else? Yup, this is a strange one even for Tim Burton. A kids’ film about death, loss and bereavement. No, wait. Come back!
It gets better. In a bold, if not commercially suicidal move, Frankenweenie is black and white. Proof, if it was needed, of just how much clout Hollywood’s perennial “outsider” has – could you imagine anyone else getting a Hollywood studio, let alone Disney, to cough up for a black and white kids’ film?
Stylistically Frankenweenie is The Nightmare Before Christmas meets Vincent, Burton’s animated Disney short. And like Vincent, this too pays affectionate tribute to Burton’s childhood hero - Martin Landau’s Mr Rzykruzki IS Vincent Price!
Burton inevitably pays tribute to his other childhood hero and frequent recent collaborator as well – Christopher Leeeeeeee’s Dracula appears on TV and it’s something you snuggle up to not cower from in terror. Burton’s horrors are always cosy and reassuring although it’s funny to think that lurid Hammer Horror which caused so much outrage back in the 50s is now the stuff of children’s entertainment.
Frankenweenie is more Universal monster mash than Hammer high camp, though. Burton’s most overtly expressionistic film since Batman Returns, the whole thing inevitably is an affectionate homage of James Whale’s Frankenstein from “You’re alive!” to The Bride of Frankenweenie!
But it doesn’t stop there. Frankenweenie is positively homage-tastic, riffing on everything from 30s Universal horror to 50s creature features, Jurassic Park and beyond. Gremlins, zombies and mummies, oh my! Not mention The Terror-pin From 20,000 Fathoms! A neat Harryhausen tribute. There are plenty of references to Burton’s own back catalogue too, including a sly wee nod to Batman.
It really doesn’t miss a trick. One of the creepy kids is even called “Shelly.” All the kids, apart from Victor, are creepy if not downright grotesque. With names like “Edgar E Gore” they are all Mini-Me Peter Lorres and Boris Karloffs to a boy. Then there’s the sombre little girl whose apparently psychic cat leaves “little messages” for people – eeeew!
There is something unmistakably Roald Dahl about all this as well. Especially the frankly shocking irreverence and downright disrespect shown towards parental authority throughout. “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.” Sometimes?
Victor’s a science nerd, you see. But his well-meaning, if clueless, dad wishes he was “normal.” A jock. Vaguely autobiographical? It’s significant that Sparky dies cos Victor acquiesces to his dad’s wishes to play baseball instead of going to the science fare like he wanted to. Like that’s a bad thing. To thine own self be true is the message here. Unless you’re, like, a serial killer or a studio executive or something…
“There’s nothing wrong with Victor. He’s just in his own world.” Like all Burton’s films, at its heart Frankenweenie is a joyous celebration of individuality. Of being different. Of being the funny-looking kid with weird hair and kitchen implements for hands. Er…
It’s a celebration too of invention, imagination and intelligence – Victor’s Heath Robinson meets Strickfaden contraptions. As well as proudly, defiantly pro-science. Not to mention unapologetically pro-immigration even! Frankenweenie is subversive stuff. If you’re a reactionary moron who thinks evolution is something which happens to other people, of course. (It is, BTW.)
It’s ironic that Frankenweenie is a celebration of science and reason in the shape of a gothic horror pastiche. And it’s ironic that the film’s voice of reason should be a grotesque caricature one of THE gothic horror icons.
Crucially though, Frankenweenie doesn’t blindly worship at the altar of science. It pointedly isn’t an article of faith. “Science is not good or bad,” Mr Rzykruzki solemnly intones. “But it can be used both ways. That is why you must be careful.” Wise words indeed and a welcome refinement of the ultimately anti-intellectual message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein - that there are things man was not meant to know. Bull. Shit. It is unfortunate as well as ironic that what is widely regarded as the first science fiction novel should also have established one of the founding clichés of the genre. And one which so spectacularly misses the point too. It’s a tradition which, it must be said, a lot of science fiction fans proudly uphold to this day.
It’s not just science fiction fans. For Frankenweenie is also The Nightmare Before Christmas meets Edward Scissorhands’ suburbia and the stifling, oppressive and self-limiting conformity that implies – the stuff of Burton’s real nightmares! “Ignorant, stupid, unenlightened,” as Mr Rzykruzki puts it in a wonderfully tactless put down of the entire town. Indeed, of Americans generally who “like the things science gives them [movies, for instance] but not the questions.”
Which makes Frankenweenie an unlikely if welcome salvo in America’s neverending “Culture Wars.” Religion, specifically creationism, isn’t mentioned once. But it’s there. The reanimated zombie elephant in the room. And it casts a longer shadow over Frankenweenie than Boris Karloff!
Refreshingly there are no real villains as such, just idiots. Often well-meaning idiots at that. Like Victor’s dad. Ignorance and superstition are the real enemy here, especially wilful ignorance. “Sometimes knowing too much is the problem,” proclaims one idiot - only a fool is ever that certain about anything. Which is suspiciously reminiscent of the ignoramus’ mantra: “too clever by half.” How can you be too clever? And surely being “too clever” is preferable the alternative? But ultimately the forces of wilful ignorance in the town are won over, reasoned with and persuaded to change their ways. If only real life was like that.
So no real baddies as such. But it’s interesting that the closest Burton comes to a villain - an ignorant, rabble-rousing mayor and respectable pillock-of-the-establishment – is called Bob Van Helsing. Which shows you precisely where his loyalties lie!
The town’s called New Holland, incidentally. A sly piss-take of the Hollywood sign and America’s puritanical protestant heritage alike, as well as a convenient excuse for an American town to have something as European as a windmill. Where better to stage a climactic homage of Frankenstein’s iconic ending – angry, torch-wielding mob and all? Tellingly, while the kids earlier used battery operated torches, their parents automatically reach for the traditional flaming variety. They do like a good old-fashioned witch hunt, our American cousins.
I just can’t help wondering how all this will go down back home. Tim Burton, the eternal goth outsider and now ex-pat Anglophile having a very pointed pop at the old country from across the pond…
What would Uncle Walt say? Now there’s a thing. That Frankenweenie is a Disney film must be sweet revenge for Burton. The sweetest. Was it not the original, live-action short version of this story which got him fired from Disney back in the 80s?
I can’t help wondering if turning Burton’s short into an animated feature was John Lassetter’s idea. There’s that (apocryphal?) story that when Lassetter took over at Disney, he called a meeting of all the suits and said “Hands up who can’t draw.” And fired everyone who put their hand up on the grounds that only creative people should be making creative decisions at the studio. I like that story. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But it should be. And can you even begin to imagine how satisfying that must have felt when Lassetter too got fired by The House of Mouse in the 80s for having the vision to see that computer animation was the future? Revenge is a dish which is best served… eventually. And Frankenweenie is the ultimate Revenge of the Nerds. The geek may not have inherited the earth, but they’ve certainly usurped the Magic Kingdom!
The ending does suggest an unintentional Ted-like scenario with a grown-up Victor still accompanied by his zombie mutt into adulthood whether he likes it or not. Night of the Living Ted? Be careful what you wish for…
Some critics have accused Frankenweenie of being “too scary for children.” Please! Some people clearly don’t remember what it’s like to be a kid. Like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Frankenweenie is spooky not scary. There’s a difference. But don’t take my word for it. My five-year old told me. He loved it!
So did I. Frankenweenie is a delightful film for kids of all ages - children, Goths and film geeks alike!