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Oh, Tim Burton, why do you mess with my head like you do?  The ups and downs of my cinematic relationship with you is nutty as Beetlejuice on a bender.  The unhappiness I feel when I report about a film of yours that is subpar can only be assuaged with something magnificent that restores my faith in your unique and excellent vision, but how you make me wait for it.  I’m starting to believe there’s an intentional pattern to this madness.  Make me sad and sorry by releasing something truly awful, which only makes me vacillate between swearing you off forever or giving you another chance.  “He can change,” I tell myself. “He can rally. He can be his brilliant old self again.” It is the masochist I never knew I was that has me back after the utter dreadfulness of Dark Shadows and the blinding mess that was Alice in Wonderland to fall once again at your feet for your wonderful, back-to-basics confection dusted with rat poison called Frankenweenie.

Vincent has a good life.  The young boy has two loving parents and lives in a nice, safe suburban neighbourhood where everything looks the same and it’s sunny a lot.  The only hitch for Vincent is, he’s what one might call “a loner.”  He’s not more than passing acquaintances with his schoolmates and even the sweet neighbour girl can’t tempt him to spend any time out of his house.  Why would he?  He’s got everything he needs there; the run of the attic with which to pursue his grand passions, filmmaking and science experiments.  Best of all, he’s got Sparky, his devoted pooch, who Vincent loves more than anybody.  Sparky really is boy’s best friend; excitedly taking part in Vincent’s Super 8 monster movies as his leading man and spending more quality time with his boy than any other being, two-legged or four.  It is a devastating shock when a horrible accident finally separates the two pals and Vincent is inconsolable.  There is no comfort from the loss of Sparky, not even his parents can console the boy by assuring him they would bring the dog back if they could.  Those words and the upcoming school science fair hatches a plan in Vincent’s brain that could only work in the classic horror movies he’s seen.  So, one dark and stormy night, aided by a treasure trove of home appliances, Vincent sets about to reanimate his deceased pal.  The success of the project brings Vincent joy and relief as he’s reunited with his loving doggy. 

Unfortunately, Sparky’s resurrection soon creates a whole new set of problems for the budding scientist; namely keeping his undead experiment, now stitched together like a badly-sewn, four-legged baseball, under wraps for who knows how long.  Of course, Sparky is a feisty little fella who doesn’t speak English, so all Vincent’s pleas for him to hide away go out the window when the dog’s feline nemesis, Mr. Whiskers, peers in from the outside.  It’s too late for Vincent to do any more hiding because one of his schoolmates, the creepy, unctuous Edgar "E" Gore spots the pup, after he knowing the dog is meant to be six feet under.  Blackmailing Vincent to use the process again, the reluctant team brings another pet back from beyond, but this time with some unforeseen side effects.  One non-electric side effect is that Edgar shoots off his big mouth and brags to Vincent’s biggest science rivals, who eventually suss out the secret and each tries it on their long lost beloved pets … and a random rat.   What worked so well for Sparky has somewhat more unexpected results in the other animals and Vincent’s worst-kept secret unleashes havoc on the town as the pets are not quite what they were before.  In the midst of the monster-sized terror, will anyone understand that despite needing occasional recharges and resewing of his tail, Sparky’s still the same good dog he always was?

So much fun.  Frankenweenie is very much the back-to-basics exercise that Tim Burton needed to recharge his creative batteries -- kind of like Sparky.  The stop-motion animated feature is full of the weirdness, humour and artistry that made fans love the director in the first place, that had been so lacking in his last feature, Dark Shadows.  The film itself is Burton remaking Burton; extending what was his first live action short into a full-length claymation feature.  The very name of our (two-legged) star is an homage to Vincent, director Burton’s first animated short, which like our feature was also filmed in lush black and white.  The visage of the progressive and slightly insane science teacher who inspires the boy to raise Sparky from the dead is modeled directly on Burton’s hero and the inspiration for that first short, actor and horror film legend, Vincent Price.  

He also surrounds himself with the gold star members of the Burton ensemble, with a fantastic performance by Beetlejuice’s Catherine O’Hara playing multiple roles, including the spooky, pale “Weird Girl” who peers deeply into the bowel movements of her equally strange and unusual cat, Mr. Whiskers, for peeks into the future.  Martin Landau tears through his role as the extremely dynamic science teacher, who is quickly run out on a rail by the townsfolk for actually expecting his students to think. The original Burton breakout star, Winona Ryder, returns to her mentor after way too many years to voice, Elsa, the nice Goth girl next door that Vincent never notices.  Sparky, our charismatic hero is a rounder, much more loved, blanket-stitched version of Burton’s design for the groundbreaking 1987 Amazing Stories episode, The Family Dog.  It’s also the most autobiographical film we’ve seen from Tim Burton as the movie takes bits he’s mentioned about his own early life, including the Edward Scissorhands-esque cookie cutter suburb where the houses and perfectly manicured lawns are all basically the same and woe betide the oddball that steps a foot out of conventionality. 

As with his first projects, Frankenweenie is a love letter to the classic horror films that inspired the director to become the filmmaker he is today.  Watching the opening monster movie created by Vincent, I wondered if the appearances by an ersatz rubber Rodan, plastic toy soldiers and the cardboard skyscraper background just waiting to be annihilated could be found on a reel of Super 8 in the Burton household?  The manifestations of the resurrected creatures are also tribute to some of Burton’s classic monster loves.  I fell flat out when Toshiaki, the Japanese student’s beloved turtle comes back to him in a form viewers can see coming a mile away… literally.  

As Burton has ever claimed of himself, Vincent is also a loner, misunderstood and very into his own head and hobbies.  Vincent looks like what the young Tim Burton must’ve, with a mop of unruly hair and unstylish clothes that he grew out of some time ago, but can’t be bothered to care.  The style of the stop-motion animation, particularly around the character’s mouths reminds one of the retrotastic Davey and Goliath, the 1960‘s claymation series of religious homilies about a boy and his talking dog learning life’s lessons.  Not only is Frankenweenie getting back to basics in terms of the trademark oddball style, absurdist charm and ghastly-but-sweet comedy that only Burton in his prime could put over, but it also feels like a getting back to self.  Away from the overblown spectacles of the headache-inducing Alice in Wonderland and the thoroughly inept Dark Shadows, this little tale about a boy and his dog is Burton stripped down and remembering how to tell stories and why he became a filmmaker and the result is joyous.  It made me remember why I was a Burton fan.

See, I told you he could change.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct 5th, 2012











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