Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Boy, His Dog, and Pure Magic: “Frankenweenie”

At its core, Tim Burton’s black and white, stop-motion animated film (in 3D yet!) is a simple, moving tale of the relationship between a boy and his loyal dog. The film works so well because that central relationship is so touchingly rendered. And Burton understands what all dog lovers know: nobody (or nothing) will love you as fully and unquestioningly as a dog.

Young suburbanite Victor Frankenstein (yes, that one; but not really) and his dog Sparky have the kind of supportive, fun relationship anybody would love to have. Sparky even stars in budding filmmaker Victor’s short films. Sparky is the perfect companion and sidekick. Short answer: this is a splendid film; one of the best films of the year, full stop. Long answer: this is the film Burton has been itching to make his entire working life; and his entire remarkable career is showcased in this wondrous work. For Burton fans, it’s a banquet.

The film is set in a modern suburbia of the early sixties, referencing Burton’s own childhood. Young Victor’s parents are concerned that he spends too much time holed up in his attic studio working on his films. His dad (well voiced by Martin Short) encourages him to participate in baseball. When Sparky chases Victor’s home-run ball, he’s run over and killed. Victor only takes heart after his science teacher conducts a lesson on electricity’s ability to seemingly reanimate a dead frog. And we’re off to the races.

Victor flies kites during a storm to attract lightening.

Burton fans will know that this is a remake of his earlier live-action Frankenweenie from 1984. But Burton had always envisioned this project as a stop-motion animation; he just couldn’t afford to make it to his exacting standards back then. Comparing the older Frankenweenie to the new compares a young man to a mature artist. The new Frankenweenie is informed—literally and figuratively—by every film Burton has ever made. Only an experienced talent could have made this Frankenweenie. Like Sparky the dog, great moments from Burton’s films live again in Frankenweenie.

Martin Landau is Rzykruski
It makes great use of the voices of actors who have done wonderful work for Burton in the past. My favorite is Martin Landau as Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski. The scene where Rzykruski defends the teaching of science to the easily offended parents of New Holland is worth the price of admission. Landau won an Oscar as Bela Lugosi is Burton’s Ed Wood and he channels Lugosi here. I could spin a dozen similar anecdotes from the performances and imagery in this film, but the better part of the fun is making those discoveries yourself. Young Charlie Tahan delivers a wonderful voice performance as Victor. And Burton alums including Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara deliver fine performances folded into clever references to their past Burton work.

This film is rated PG and your kids should understand that living things die if you're thinking of taking them. Older kids and teens will enjoy this, especially if they like classic monster or horror movies. But you should be aware that Burton has set the film in the past and made the choice to create the film as if it had actually been made in the past; including a politically incorrect characterization of an Asian character, one of Victor's schoolmates, Toshiaki. It's a post-modern tweak, but it could easily be taken for an insult. In essence, the character of Toshiaki is phony; just as phony as having classmates who are thinly disguised classic monsters like the Frankenstein monster here depicted as classmate Nassor or his sidekick based on classic "lab assistant" Igor, here depicted as classmate Edgar "E" Gore. This is a surreal, film-inspired world, the only place where such absurd characters could live. By watching this movie, you're participating in Tim Burton's childhood: days filled watching classic (and politically incorrect) monster and horror films, with a best friend who happens to be a dog.

Mr. Burgemeister from Frankenweenie (left) homages the
Burgermeister Meisterburger by Rankin & Bass.
The film makes copious references to famous and obscure productions from film history. One of my favorites is the appearance of neighbor Mr. Burgemeister. In looks, actions, and attitude, he’s an homage to the Burgermeister Meisterburger from the stop-action animated classic, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town by Rankin & Bass, made in 1970. Another favorite reference: note the frightening classic Disney film that’s displayed on the marquee of the New Holland movie theater. Other references? I won’t spoil them for you. Because you should see this film. Full stop.

This film is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, and action. 

All art used by permission. Not for reuse.

You can view the original Frankenweenie on YouTube right here (before its taken down):

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