Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2012


Second life

On Tim Burton's 'Frankenweenie,' and how artists are judged

Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John August, based on a screenplay by Leonard Ripps and an original idea by Tim Burton
Starring: The voices of Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder
Rated PG / 1 hour, 27 minutes
Opened October 5, 2012
(out of four)

You often hear about people wishing a filmmaker would "go back to his roots," or hoping for a "return to form." Usually such comments can be translated roughly as: "I got attached to the director's earlier work and I don't like that he evolved as an artist because I wanted him to stay the same forever and ever."

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman recently wrote a column of absurd logic concerning Paul Thomas Anderson, complaining that the filmmaker he fell in love with during Boogie Nights was no longer the same filmmaker, and how he wishes PTA would go back to doing what he was doing back then. The writer even throws around, in so many words, the dreaded "self-indulgent" accusation. Basically, Gleiberman is the guy in line behind Alvy in Annie Hall. (You know nothing of his work, Owen.) First off, can you imagine, looking back, other visual artists who were surely judged the same way? ("Well, I liked Picasso's early work, but once he started doing all those weird shapes and stuff, I stopped liking him. He really became very self-indulgent.")

It's simply nonsense. Now what does this have to do with Frankenweenie? I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it. Here we have the case of Tim Burton, who's been roundly savaged (both by former fans and long-time detractors) for his recent output. While the overriding point may have validity, the tenor of the outcry has more to do with Burton not making the same kinds of films he was once known for, and less to do with the quality of what he's making now. But cooler heads would see it at least somewhat differently. Looking at just his 21st Century work, he's actually made two movies - 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and 2003's Big Fish - that are on the high end of his career. On those grounds alone, Modern Burton must be defended.

But then - yes, of course - there are such dreadful remakes as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes. Plus additional failures like Dark Shadows and (to an extent, though I didn't hate it as much as some) Alice in Wonderland. The point, though, is that we should be upset that these movies are, on their own terms, not very good - instead of blasting them for not being enough like Old Burton. If we're going to criticize him, at least do it for the right reasons.

I bring all this up because Burton's latest is so perfectly emblematic of that very issue. He has gone about as closely back to his roots as he possibly could, adapting his 1984 short Frankenweenie into feature length. Indeed it has almost everything we've come to associate with early Burton - an alienating, tongue-in-cheek suburbia; monster-movie aesthetics; grotesqueries; young, lonely outsiders; and of course, Winona Ryder. On one hand, it's terrific because he's able to inhabit this world so well. My concern is that the excitement over the film's success will reinforce the idea that this is all he can do (which is untrue). Too often there's a prevailing insistence that our artists stay the way they were when we were first introduced to them.

Frankenweenie, this time in stop-motion form, begins with much the same story as its half-hour predecessor, focusing on a young boy, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), whose only true friend is his dog, Sparky. He does everything with Sparky - most of it indoors, like making movies with handmade miniature sets, or tinkering with scientific equipment and experiments in the attic. But his small world crumbles one day when Sparky runs out into the street to fetch a runaway baseball - one off the bat of Victor, no less - and ends up getting hit by a car.

The Frankenstein family (Victor and his two parents, who are good and kind but don't totally get their son) buries Sparky in the nearby pet cemetery. (The cemetery, I must point out, gives the film an opportunity for a terrific Hello Kitty joke.) A dispirited Victor, inspired by a demonstration in science class, decides to try to reanimate his dog, and everyone who's ever heard the Frankenstein story knows what happens next. The 1984 short pretty much stopped there, with the reanimated dog's presence leading to the inevitable angry mob climax. This version expands the story, centering things around a school science fair and the jockeying for supremacy among a small group of students. Once the secret about Sparky is out, things get a tad bit complicated, and soon enough the town of New Holland has got a whole load of formerly dead animals on their hands.

It's a charming and fun direction to take the story, especially with the sense of absurdity that overtakes the film's comedic tone in the third act. To be honest, though, all the new characters and elements do end up detracting from the thread of the lonely boy and his dog, which is the real emotional centerpiece. When the film shifts away from that in the second half (focusing instead on the game of scientific one-upmanship in which Victor gets unwittingly involved), it loses a little bit.

Ultimately, though, it still lands where it needs to - emotionally and otherwise - and sticks it. In the meantime we get a series of great black & white images culled from old monster movies that nobody knows better than Burton, including a nod to the legendary staircase shot from Nosferatu.

I particularly liked the way the character designs personify the appearances of classic horror-movie archetypes. There's the most obvious one, Edgar (Full name Edgar Gore, or E. Gore), whose distorted appearance is matched perfectly by Atticus Shaffer's strangely friendly and off-putting voice performance; then there's Victor's disdainful rival, Nassor (voiced by Martin Short), who looks like a visual combination of Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula; and of course it wouldn't be a Burton movie without a Vincent Price appearance, who this time comes in the form of the science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for Burton's best film, Ed Wood).

Burton certainly feels right at home here, and Frankenweenie's best moments indeed feel (almost by default, I suppose) like vintage Burton. The perception that a movie like this is the only place in the cinematic landscape where he belongs is an unfortunate one, and one I hope he disproves by going in a new and exciting direction sometime in the future. But for now, this is an exceedingly pleasant bit of nostalgia - for him, I'm sure, as much as for us.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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