Written by Chris Spicer, Fanboy Comics Contributor
Friday, 12 October 2012 07:05
Maybe it was just me, but I was kind of getting tired of Tim Burton.
For the past 10 or 15 years, it seemed he was just making the same movie over and over again. He kept regurgitating the same Burtonesque tropes to lesser positive effect. Before you saw a single frame of a new Burton movie, there were a boatload of things of which you could be absolutely sure: the lead characters would be in silent movie makeup, the color scheme would be either totally desaturated or completely blown up like 1930s Technicolor, a bland version of suburbia might pop up, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter would show up and give performances that seemed increasingly undirected and detached from any recognizable human behavior, and Danny Elfman would provide a percussive musical score that sounded largely cribbed from every other score he’d written for Burton. It was all very tired and predictable.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for great directors as film stylists. But what a guy like Scorsese does is tailor his style to serve whatever story it is he’s telling. Burton just delivers the same style regardless of what the story needs. The only film of his I’ve really liked in the past ten or so years was Sweeney Todd and that was because his style seemed to fit the material like a glove. Also it didn’t hurt that Stephen Sondheim had delivered nearly idiot-proof source material.
Needless to say, I wasn’t all that excited about Frankenweenie, Burton’s new stop-motion animated film and his second release of 2012. People who’ve followed his career know that Frankenweenie began life when Burton was working as an animator for Disney back in the early 1980s. A live-action short film was made of the concept back in 1984, and it tells the story of a young boy who brings his beloved pet dog back to life after it’s hit by a car. Burton made Disney a cool $1 billion on Alice in Wonderland and being able to finally finish Frankenweenie was his payback.
Color me surprised, because I enjoyed this more than anything Burton’s done in a long time.
Yes, a lot of the familiar Burton ticks are on display. It’s stop-motion, a familiar technique he’s employed since Large Marge sent ya back in 1985. The lead characters are pale white with dark circles around their eyes. It’s in (quite glorious) black and white. But, for the first time in ages, Burton seems engaged in the story even more than the art direction. Depp and Bonham Carter are not in the voice cast, allowing Burton to reconnect with former collaborators like Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder. After all, Lydia Deitz was essentially the first Burton stand-in.
The story remains largely the same. Victor (last name Frankenstein, one of many, many classic monster references) is a lonely kid with a love of science who is understandably distraught when his loyal dog Sparky is killed by a car. Inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau doing his glorious Ed Wood Bela Lagosi voice), Victor decides to harness the power of lightning to reanimate his dead dog.
Once Sparky is back from the grave, problems ensue. Victor’s classmates become aware of Sparky’s return and decide to use their own experiments to bring other pets back from the great beyond. But, like Jack Skellington’s attempt to do Christmas, these other experiments go comically awry. And, since there’s such a huge amount of Frankenstein imagery on display, it’s only natural that everything climaxes in a tall tower surrounded by villagers with torches.
Frankenweenie carries a relatively low price tag (it was produced for only around $30), and it seems that a return to a smaller production has really brought out the best in Tim Burton. How does a movie like Dark Shadows bloat to a $150 million budget anyway?
If you think about it, Burton’s best movies are usually the least commercially successful ones. Ed Wood is still his best movie, and it was a huge bomb when it was initially released. Having lower commercial expectations seems to have loosened him up.
Frankenweenie is smart, fun, and largely heartfelt. The scene in which Sparky is initially killed is very restrained (the car hitting him occurs offscreen), but Victor’s reaction is heartwrenching. How the animators were able to wring that kind of emotional response out of a puppet is beyond me. It’s an astonishing piece of animation.
The whole film is a technical marvel, beautifully crafted in every way. The stop-motion technique is a famously slow process, but it also yields amazing results. This is a great movie just to sit back and look at. The sequence in which Victor raises Sparky from the dead is steeped in Universal monster movie imagery, and it’s a truly great piece of visual filmmaking. Peter Sorg’s monochrome lensing is first rate. I wish more filmmakers could shoot in black and white.
Don’t tell the Goth kids this, but I’ve never been a big fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas. I just find it boring. It doesn’t have story that can sustain a feature length movie. Frequent Burton writer John August has delivered a screenplay here that actually works as a 90-minute film.
Best of all is a scene set at a PTA meeting in which science is vigorously defended, and these modern-day doubters of science are hung out to dry. If you don’t believe in science, the movie says, you’re an idiot; people who fear science fear it the same way a dog fears balloons. That people are attacking scientific findings as subjective in the year 2012 alarms me greatly. Our entertainment (especially entertainment aimed at families) tends to avoid any confrontation on social or political issues. I was kind of stunned to see this scene play out in a Disney movie, but I was also more than a little thrilled by it.
In the immortal words of Jesse Pinkman, “Yeah, science!”