Wednesday, 24 October 2012


Tim Burton’s latest attempt to get back into critical favour – after slipping considerably in the past few years – is a self-homage to a time of homages. Burton has gone back to his 1984 short live-action film Frankenweenie – his second-ever live-action work – and his early propensity to pastiche schlocky old films. I do understand this – his best films had an excuse to revel in his love for B-movies, Ed Wood in particular – and aside from the dodgy last few minutes, Frankenweenie actually was one of his best and most heartfelt bits of filmmaking. But going back to it now, as well as gathering a whole lot of cast members from his previous works, smacks just slightly of cynicism and artifice – a little like when a rich, middle-aged band try to recapture the sound of when they were young and hungry and it all sounds a bit false…I’m looking at you, KoRn.

But Burton having fun and paying tribute to the things he loves is the best Burton – and this is definitely a good film. I recommend it and I definitely enjoyed it. It just wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be, and I think part of the problem was that I have seen the original and was therefore aware of the bits that were added – and whether or not the additional material fit in. And while much of the transition to the big screen made a lot of sense – I loved the fleshing-out of the heavily-accented Vincent Price-like teacher, for example, and his brilliant scene at the PTA meeting – others were just awkwardly tagged-on.

The overall structure is the same in this stop-motion remake. Lonely young Victor likes making monster flicks with his dog Sparky as the star. When Sparky is in a traffic accident, Victor is inspired by a science lesson showing a frog’s legs twitching when electricity is supplied to re-animate Sparky’s corpse. His experiment is a success, but he has to keep Sparky hidden, because people won’t understand.

This is where there’s a bit of a divergence, one of the more awkward ones. In the original, Sparky gets out of the house and runs amok in the neighbourhood. There are some amusing scenes were he’s mistaken for something hideous. This is in the animated version, but goes nowhere and oddly gets dropped, ultimately seeming a bit random. Instead, Victor’s schoolmates learn his secret and emulate his successes – only they do not act out of love, meaning what they raise is more terrible. The end result of it is the same, though – Sparky is mistaken for a monster and a mob chases him with flaming torches.

In the original, the climactic action amusingly takes place in the windmill of a crazy golf course. Here, that’s replaced by the large windmill symbolic of ‘New Holland’s Dutch heritage, which is amusing mostly because I know it’s an alternative to the golf course. There is more action in this version, but the ending is largely the same, and thankfully with animation, you don’t have the problem of trying to pretend an almost weightless puppet is Bastion from The NeverEnding Story.

My problems here are the way things just seem to have been tacked on to the bare bones of the old story. Winona Ryder’s character is the most obvious one – she just seems totally extraneous and barely interacts with the other characters. Her father is good for plot impetus, but there’s nothing to him. Burton – or his scriptwriters – made the decision to change the parents from the slightly unsettling, kooky normal people they were in the original (thanks largely to Shelly Duvall’s peculiar performance) into generally rather normal people, and instead has the very normal kids in Victor’s class become a series of nods to horror tropes. There’s the boy who looks like Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster and has a great scene or two resurrecting ‘Colossus’, but little else. Then there’s the boy in the Igor role, who is quite adorable. There’s the wide-eyed, staring, creepy girl with a psychic cat who I was a little sad didn’t get closure to her story, especially since she lost her constant companion. There was the fat boy who brings sea monkeys to life, which seem to be a Gremlins tribute. Then there’s the somewhat offensively-stereotyped Japanese boy, who the makers have clearly attempted to distance from tokenism by making him talented in a variety of fields, but really only has that thick accent so that there can later be a Godzilla/Gamera parody. It makes sense, given the fleshed-out story, but somehow the slightly unsettling home life set against a very ordinary school life gave just the right atmosphere of weird-twee-suburbia that Edward Scissorhands gets so right, but this now lacks.

Also, strangely, the visuals just aren’t as striking. The film nails shadows on walls – there’s no doubt about that. The Corpse Bride-like designs for the puppets work, but are often a little stiff, and the more grotesque characters have distractingly brilliant mouth movements. But somehow, the angle of that shot with pet graves on a hill doesn’t ring as true, and the cuts with the angry mobs and the fire don’t quite seem to evoke the old Hammer films. It’s all almost perfect, but not quite there.

But this is a harsh review, mostly because I had high hopes. It remains a very enjoyable and well-made film. It just wasn’t quite all I hoped it would be. 

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