Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 Catch Up: Frankenweenie (A-)

Without the presence of blockbuster filmmaker Tim Burton guiding its way through the Hollywood system, it's impossible to imagine any possible scenario in which Frankenweenie, or anything remotely similar to it, could get produced by a mainstream production company. A b/w, stop-motion animated horror movie for kids, with the majority of jokes consisting of homages to old school creature features, and containing the death of multiple beloved pets, this film defies all conventions for traditional kiddie cinema. The first third mostly consists of a child realistically mourning the death of his furry best friend, and the final is a chaotic monster melee, hectic enough to terrify those below 10. In between, Burton shows a mostly unlikable (from a child's perspective) supporting cast ruining the protagonist's chances of reanimating his dog without repercussions. Without Burton's name attached to the poster, a kid's movie like this would be lucky to find distribution at all, let alone play 3,000+ theaters and receive the 3D treatment. However, without Tim Burton, this movie couldn't exist at all.

In spite of plot points involving Godzilla sized turtles, and bad omens originating from feline fecal matter, this most likely is Burton's most personal film. Victor, the protagonist, is quiet and creative. To set the tone for this, Burton opens with a scene from one of Victor's homemade movies. The movie-within-a-movie begins with a small town populated by toys and figurines moving about through lovably shoddy stop-motion. Meanwhile, Victor and his parents are watching the proceedings on a couch. Victor seems incredibly proud of his accomplishment with the short feature, giddy with the enthusiasm of filmmaking. The parents seem like they are having an okay time watching their son's home movie, and seem half-heartedly excited for the inevitable appearance of the family dog; who is implied to be in every one of Victor's movies. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a triceratops bursts over Toy City's skyline. Then the army bursts in to quell the prehistoric problem; guns blazing to defeat the triceratops, who now possesses the ability to breath fire. Soon, after the appearance of a homemade silent film card, written in marker on cardboard, we learn that "Sparkysaurus" is coming to save the day. One smash cut later, a dog non-ironically dressed in birthday hats to give it the look of a dinosaur comes in and saves the day.

Creating fake movies to be featured in real films and television programs is almost an art form. For each ReDo (Funny People), there are a dozen of The Wedding Bride (How I Met Your Mother). To make a realistic fictional feature, it actually can't be fictional at all, but rather something taken from past experience. The opening homemade movie most likely wasn't a remake of something Burton did when he was younger, but it certainly sets up the metaphor that Victor represents a younger Tim Burton. Frankenweenie is not only a b/w, 3D, stop-motion animated horror movie for kids, but is also partially a Graham Chapman-esque autobiography where the truth blends with multiple layers of fiction.

Subtext aside, what makes this such a great effort from Burton is the heightened realism in which the story presents itself. Despite the bizarre flourishes usually found in the director's films, Frankenweenie remains relatively tethered to reality in the best possible sense. No characters fall into the trappings of stereotypes or remain generic, and Burton never seems to go outside the realms of the plot to show the audience a type of unique visual. Also, the homages to various older horror films never feel pretentious or out of place. What's especially remarkable is how Burton goes for the melancholic tone of his 2005 animated Corpse Bride, rather than the bombastic and visually manic qualities of his more recent Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland. Even during the anarchic final 15 minutes, where reanimated pets and animals obliterate a town fair in a similar manner to the opening fake film, everything feels restrained without ever coming across as lazy or laid back.

The film also offers further proof that CGI, despite its promises of endless creativity, has restricted the imagination of Tim Burton. Unlike the visually interesting, yet somewhat generic landscapes and characters of Alice in Wonderland, almost every aspect of his latest is memorable in at least some way. The character which first comes to mind is Martin Landau's Mr. Rzykruski; the Eastern European science teacher of Victor and his classmates. A man with an odd face and even odder personality, he is the type of visual creation which cannot be replicated with computer imagery, and flourishes when designed by the imperfections of stop-motion animation. An example of this is when, at certain points, the audio intentionally doesn't match the movement of the character's lips. This could be a subtle trick to show how different this foreigner is from the rock-flag-and-eagle citizens of New Holland, or simply a mistake by the sound editors. Because the recurring error is so blatant, I'm hopeful that the first option is correct. Using this intentional mistake to help subtly establish a character works with stop-motion, but had the same technique been done using CGI, it would've piqued little more than annoyed curiosity and confusion.

There's only one person who could get this movie though the Hollywood system, and by lack of coincidence, it's the only person with the creativity and imagination to direct the film in the first place: Tim Burton. Though it may miss the mark for its intended kiddie audience, Frankenweenie is an absolute return to form for Burton thanks to its balance of unbounded ingenuity and melancholic simplicity, and a debatably autobiographic aspect involving the protagonist. It may not be perfect for those under 10, but it's worth catching up with for everyone above.

Grade: A-

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