OCTOBER 13, 2012
You know I'm too busy when I can't find the time for a HMAD-ready wide theatrical release until its 2nd weekend, but with Shriekfest and a work week that had me on the late shift (why don't theaters open at 9 am?), I just couldn't get to Frankenweenie until now. And honestly, I might have waited longer (I haven't seen Argo yet - seeing a late period Tim Burton movie before the new film from one of my heroes* is not sitting well with me), but the market for stop-motion horror movies for kids apparently dried up with Paranorman, and I suspect that Sparky's adventures in reanimation won't be around in too many theaters by the time I have a free weekend or weeknight again.
And that's a shame, because I think it's just as good as Paranorman, and in some ways better. While that film hit closer to home for me (as the horror loving kid from New England without a lot of friends growing up), the story was uneven (adios ghosts, hello zombies; adios zombies, hello random little sad girl!) and - I know this is a weird thing to "complain" about, but bear with me - the animation was a bit TOO clean; at times it looked more like CGI animated toons instead of traditional stop-motion puppets running across its lavish sets. Frankenweenie doesn't have that problem - it's got quite a few of the little "glitches" (displaced grass around characters feet, for example) that I actually really love to see in stop motion - it somehow *proves* that its a difficult, time-consuming process that requires hands-on manipulation to work (as opposed to a computer doing what you tell it to once the design is out of the way).
See, as I've mentioned before, I used to make little stop-motion pieces for various school projects and such, and grew to really love the process and truly admire the work that goes into professional pieces like this. So when I see that little smudged fingerprint on a puppet's chest, it actually warms me a little - being taken out of the movie for a second is worth the reassurance that in this day and age of lazy filmmaking, there are still some ass-busters out there who will do things the "old" way in order to sell the overall tone and feel of their concepts; a far cry from say, Michael Mann, using the world's shittiest digital technology to tell a story that took place in 1930.
Plus it started with one of the character's own stop-motion home movies, which was just awesome as it showed the difference between a kid doing it for a hobby and what happens when a big team of experts are behind the magic (it's the same process, basically - they're moving stuff a bit and shooting one frame at a time, same as the kid in the movie). It kind of reminded me of Team America, starting on a puppet show before panning out to reveal... a puppet show. But way to win me over right off the bat, as we see little mistakes in his movie (props falling over, the occasional hand) that sent me back to 1995 or so, trying to make my Odysseus (some generic wrestling figure) enter the cave (shoebox) of Polyphemus (a lump of play-dough).
Except the star of this movie is Sparky (né Frankenweenie), playing a heroic dinosaur who saves this makeshift city from a rampaging pterodactyl. And since I knew the plot of the movie, I actually started crying, not two minutes after it began. The animation and design for Sparky is just incredible, and seeing the little mutt happily running around in the movie (and then after, cheerfully following hero Victor around as he prepared to make his next film) just wrecked me, because I knew he wouldn't be around long since the plot revolved around his death and reanimation. It's like in ARMAGEDDON, when Bruce promises Liv Tyler that he'll come back - it's fine the first time, but now when I watch it I get all sad because I know he doesn't. The actual death is handled well (even if they twist the knife a bit by letting him safely cross the street only to get hit by a car on the way back), and while some of the kids in the crowd were successfully killing the tension by asking stupid questions at full volume, I think if they could handle the old lady in Up, or Bambi's mom in Bambi (which gets a shoutout for this very reason, I suspect), they should be fine.
Especially since, obviously, Sparky is brought back in a Frankenstein-esque experiment, inspired by Victor's new science teacher, who gives the most ridiculous/hilarious explanation of lightning ever uttered on-screen or off. The number of scars and body parts that keep falling off suggest that the car really did a number on the poor guy, but he's just as silly and playful as he was when he was alive, which should help alleviate any trauma among the kiddies. But I wouldn't show this to a kid who actually lost his own pet; not only will it give the wrong idea, but the ending (SPOILER) doesn't quite teach us about the consequences of playing God the way its namesake text does. Obviously it makes for a happier ending so we're not soaking our 3D glasses in tears all over again, but still, I think ol' Sparky should have wagged his tail goodbye and let young Victor actually grieve instead of doing what we mournful pet owners can't. I guess it hammers home the film's pro-science slant (the teacher gives a great speech about how we wouldn't be here if not for people experimenting the way Victor does), but come on. Big difference between discovering a way to prevent diseases and stitching together a dog and bringing him back to life to avoid learning about death.
Otherwise, no complaints at all. The black and white style is perfect, as there are a number of references to classic horror (Bride of Frankenstein, Hunchback, Invisible Man, etc) and thus feels just right when Victor's pulling off his experiment, charmingly put together out of household items and makeshift "equipment" - it's one of the best "It's alive!" scenes since the original, I think. And his fellow classmates - all weirdos - are given distinct personalities and designs, which works out perfectly as they are somewhat sidelined for a while and then gradually weeded back into the plot as they catch on to Victor's secret and begin raising their own pets from the grave. Naturally, things don't go as well as they did with Sparky, so the third act is just a treasure trove of monster action as the pets mutate and attack the town during their annual parade.
And the villains have just as much variety as the kids - there's a Gremlins-esque batch of mutant sea monkeys, a cat/bat hybrid , a mummy hamster named Colossus, and the giant turtle taking the place of Gamera. I was actually impressed by the amount of carnage - even factoring in the difficulty of such scale with stop-motion, I just wasn't expecting it to get this crazy. Naturally, things end with an angry torch-wielding mob and our monsters battling at a burning windmill, which is the best kind of reference - I was giggling like a fool, but the kids in the crowd who have never seen a Frankenstein film won't even notice that they're "missing" a joke. Hell even some of the more blatant references still worked on the youngsters - one kid who couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 laughed hysterically when a dog got zapped and was left with a Bride of Frankenstein 'do - there's no way he was laughing at the homage, he just found it to be a funny sight.
It's also a fine return to form for Burton, who has mostly disappointed since... well, Ed Wood, his last black and white film. Maybe color's not his thing (the only one in between I've really liked is Sweeney Todd, which was practically black and white save for the blood and that one fantasy scene), and it's interesting that like Ed Wood, the film is about a relationship between best friends, one of whom appears in the other one's movies. And the town of New Holland is very much like the North Hollywood/Burbank locales that Burton used in that film (he grew up in Burbank and has drawn from it in a number of his films), so the two would make a fine double feature someday. And it's certainly better than Corpse Bride, which was just dull and in no way lived up to Nightmare Before Christmas (which it was aiming for, unlike this which is a more traditional (song-free) tale that just happens to use the format). Needless to say, the (native) 3D is also better than his last foray, which remains the low point for conversions.
The film's middling box office is a bummer, but not too surprising - Burton killed a lot of his goodwill on Alice and Dark Shadows, the black and white look is probably a turn off for many, and again, Paranorman probably stole a lot of its thunder. It's a shame that his best work as a director in ages is going unnoticed by the masses, but then again, so did Ed Wood. Hopefully this won't scare him back into adaptation territory, but if so, at least we know he's still got some of that old spark in him somewhere.
What say you?
*Affleck came out of Boston to star in ARMAGEDDON and become a respected filmmaker. I came out of Boston to tweet about ARMAGEDDON and watch Puppet Master movies. Obviously, he's someone I look up to and would pattern myself after if I had a shred of his talent. Hell, dude even grows a better beard than me.