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Friday, October 12, 2012

Movie Review: Frankenweenie

With Halloween just around the corner, there are always a few frighteningly fun films out around this time. One of the more "family-friendly" seasonal films comes from one of my all-time, favorite directors: Tim Burton! While I haven't been too happy with some of his recent movies (i.e. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010)), I have however, been a longtime fan of his earlier, darker films such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, or Batman. This time, Tim Burton actually remade one of his own films, namely Frankenweenie! For those who don't know, the new Frankenweenie is actually based on Burton's 1984 live-action short-film, which Tim directed during his brief stint at Disney, which he was later fired from for "wasting their resources". It wasn't long before he would return to Disney/Touchstone Pictures and produce the highly successful The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) which remains one of the most popular titles and not to mention, successful merchandising properties for Disney today. Now Burton has re-envisioned his original idea, which almost 30 years ago, Disney had said was "too scary for family viewing".
Frankenweenie (2012) is a full-length, black-and-white, 3D, stop-motion animation film directed by Tim Burton, which, exactly like his original, is a dog-centred parody of Universal's Classic Frankenstein (1931). Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a young but odd boy, who likes to make his own monster movies. His only friend is his beloved dog, Sparky (voiced by Frank Welker). One fateful day, Sparky is hit by a car! Inconsolable despite his parent's efforts (Mr. (Martin Short) and Mrs. (Catherine O'Hara) Frankenstein), Victor becomes inspired by his new,  eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who demonstrates how electricity affects the nervous system of a dead frog. That night, Victor goes to the pet cemetery and digs up his dead dog and attempts to reanimate him using the power of lightning! Although his experiment is a success, Victor carelessly confides in his creepy classmate Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer). Then all Hell breaks loose (literally!) when his other classmates learn of his triumph and try to replicate Victor's experiment on their own dearly-departed pets!
The original Frankenweenie, circa 1984
As a fan of the original Frankenweenie at an early age (which was my first introduction to the world of Tim Burton), I remember seeing the censored version on the Disney Channel many years ago. I still own a long out-of-print VHS copy of it, along with the uncut version, which is featured on the Special Edition Blu-ray/DVD of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The new Frankenweenie retains much of the same dark, tongue-in-cheek elements of Burton's earlier work. While the plot remains virtually unchanged, there is the addition of more characters and even a love-interest: the shy Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), niece to New Holland's over-bearing Mayor, Mr. Burgemeister (also Martin Short). The new movie delves more into Victor's character and we get to see more interaction between him and his devoted dog before his unfortunate accident. We are also introduced to some of Victor's more "unusual" classmates (actually their all a little unusual!) including: Nassor, Toshiaki, "Weird Girl" and Bob. The delightful way in which the characters are portrayed are very reminiscent of other famous horror movie actors and personalities. Mr. Rzykruski bears a strong resemblance to Vincent Price, Nassor is very much like Boris Karloff along with his signature lisp, while the hilariously-hunchbacked Edgar E. Gore seems like a cross between Dwight Frye and Peter Lorre. As for the wide-eyed "Weird Girl" and her creepy cat Mr. Whiskers (Dee Bradley Baker), she is pure "Burton-esque"! As for the seemingly "normal" characters who inhabit the little town of New Holland, there are Victor's parents who are so ridiculously oblivious to his activities that they only become involved when his mother accidentally discovers the undead pooch living in their attic. There is one particular moment later in the movie that I found both surprising and confusing where the townspeople confront Mr. Rzykruski (Inherit the Wind-style) about what he is teaching their children and instead of trying to reason with them or explain himself he simply points out very blatantly, how stupid and ignorant they all are! Although the movie is chock full of macabre madness and frighteningly funny moments, there is almost too much going on in the movie which takes away from it's original story of a boy who is unwilling to accept the death of his dog. I suppose Tim Burton and Disney made the agreement to downplay the whole doggy-death while keeping the kid's attention with a lot of crazy characters and creepy creatures such as a flying bat/cat, mutant sea-monkeys and a giant, Godzilla-like turtle! By the climax of the film, there are so many things going on that the original plot is lost and you forget that this all started with Victor and Sparky.
The original Frankenweenie short was very direct and was able to tell the whole story in less than 30 minutes. The final windmill scene as in the original Frankenweenie and it's inspiration, the original Frankenstein, is altered drastically. Without spoiling the end, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed as I felt it lost much in the way of the emotional impact that I remember feeling when I first saw a boy bring his dog back from the grave. For anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet as a child, the story is very relateable. But as for all of the extra craziness brought on by the horrific hi-jinx, you begin to question why Tim Burton felt the need to remake it in the first place. If you are a fan of the original Frankenweenie, it might be fun to see, but lower your expectations. Frankenweenie is fun, visually and technologically entertaining but it lacks substance. As for other horror-themed animated films this year, I felt ParaNorman was superior.