Frankenweenie (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Frankenweenie (2012)

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It's been a long creative drought for Tim Burton.  Every film he has made since 2001's Big Fish has been steeped in the same day-glo goth industrial visual style tapered around an obsession with the macabre.  It's fine to have a niche, but his specialty had started to get so grating that by the time Alice In Wonderland came about it felt like he'd given up on trying to make a good film and instead is just applying the aesthetic to whatever franchise producers point him to.

Frankenweenie, if nothing else, abandons the garish multicolored nightmare of the last decade and settle for simple, wonderful, black-and-white.  It's a film that takes place in modern times but is a self-conscious throwback to the tenor of '50s and loving homage to monster films of the '30s.  Style only takes the film so far, and Burton also laces on a number of sad realizations about growing up, many that are only possible if you have a pet.

Burton's film is about that unique perception we have at adolescence when it feels like the world has completely abandoned you.  This fits into the standard wacky outsider Burton motif but in this case he takes great lengths to show just how loved the "outsider" is.  The film's perspective is from someone remembering this childhood years later and the things that showed them the most love.  In Burton's case it was his parents, a great teacher, and his dog.

Overall it's a sad fantasy and Burton underlines the loneliness after your pet has died in a number of quiet moments.

For a lot of kids growing up the first time you encounter really traumatic death is when your pet dies.  When I was 13 my dalmatian Beau had been away from our home for a few weeks and when our car pulled up he came barreling out of my grandparent's home to see me.  He was jumping around, wagging his tail, barking with joy, and then suddenly fell dead of a heart attack.  I remember my grandma crying and wanting to pray with me afterward, my mom hugging me, my brother's looking sadly at me, and my dad patting my shoulder.  But that's what I remember now, when it happened there was just silence and my dead dog.

Burton's film recreates that sadness so delicately that if he kept up the pace I would have been emotionally deflated at the end.  His film surrogate Victor (Charlie Tahan) lives in a wonderful anachronism of neatly arranged homes.  They have '50s trappings (3-tab shingles on the roof, neatly manicured lawns) but access to today's technology.  He just let's these weird little differences be, and thanks to the black-and-white color palette he is able to reign in some of his more outlandish impulses and what few moments of macabre that might have worked against the film become a bit more palatable.

The world is lovely, and Victor's relationship with his little dog, Sparky, is created brilliantly.  Burton plays through most of the first half of the film in near-silence.  We don't get a scene of Victor sitting down and telling Sparky "You mean more to me than anything in the world" but we see how big a part of Victor's life the dog is.  He is used in Victor's films, walks with him in the morning, finds him after school, and fits the grand equation of man's best friend.  When tragedy finally strikes it's played just as silently, and with Sparky's headstone looming overhead little Victor cries and walks away.

Even if I thought they were layered on a bit too thick, Burton is having a lot of fun referencing some much beloved horror films.

These scenes are very powerful and make up most of the first half of the film.  Then the film continues on and the problems begin.  A great subplot, which gives Victor the idea to raise his dog from the dead, stems from a well meaning science teacher, Dr. Rzykruski, (Martin Landau), who bears a striking resemblance to horror giant Vincent Price.  This is the first direct callback to Burton's love of old monster movies and the most appropriate as he teaches Victor that true science is born of ingenuity, love, and creativity.

Not a bad lesson, and with the way Sparky's death is treated, as well as the horror of his rebirth, this could have been a wonderful story about how to let go.  Instead the film saddles a bunch of curious classmates and pseudo-love interest into the plot who become curious about Victor's experiment.  From roughly the half-way point on the film becomes a kinetic race of monster versus monster with bonus points going to who can spot the most film references by the end.  I counted Dracula, Nosferatu, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, Frankenstein (of course,) and many others.  This is where Burton's love of the macabre gets in films way where previously it only provided the bedrock for a couple of uncomfortable detours (particularly when a disgusting pacifier finds its way from Sparky to an unforuntate baby.)

The personal is abandoned for the spectacle and Burton's film suffers for it.  A few tributes to what inspired him makes sense considering this is a full-length treatment of his first film and I wish he could have stuck the landing.  But that doesn't erase the sad beauty of that first half, which is far better than anything else you might see this year.

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Frankenweenie (2012)

Directed by Tim Burton.
Screenplay written by John August.
Starring Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, and many others.

Posted by Andrew

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