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Entries in Frankenweenie [2012] (1)

Wednesday
Oct102012

Frankenweenie (2012)

Slop Motion

Before leaving for the movies the other night, I predicted that sitting through Frankenweenie would be a chore. My wife shot me her patented Zero Sympathy look and whined exaggeratedly, "Poor me! I've gotta go watch a movie! Uuugh!"

In that moment, I considered the horrors of global poverty and war, and conceded her point with a shrug.

Then I fired back with, "Yeah, well I have to write about it, too!"

Before you accuse me of biasedly attacking Tim Burton's latest film, please understand this: it's true that I have preconceived notions about movies, based on trailers and posters. I'm human, after all.

Sometimes my reaction to marketing materials is the exact inverse of what the marketers had hoped to achieve. With Frankenweenie, I saw the same drab, skinny-legs-and-pumpkin-heads character designs that have failed to evolve in the two decades since The Nightmare Before Christmas came out, and determined that the movie would likely not be for me. Danny Elfman's Xeroxed score didn't help matters, nor did the ubiquitous Universal monster movie references that felt like fifty-year-old Mad Magazine gags. Add to that the fact that it looked as though the stop-motion animation was just a gimmick to cover up Burton's stretching a flimsy short-film premise over an hour and a half, and I had zero enthusiasm heading into the theatre.*

Here's the point in the review where I say, "Well, I was wrong! Frankenweenie is terrific!"

Sadly, I didn't care for the film--in fact, I had trouble staying awake through most of it. Burton and his team of artisans have pulled off a great technical feat. From the puppets' movement to the elaborate, weather-affected environments that make up the world in which they live, everything about the production is spectacular. But the same can be said about Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy, or Hannah Montana: The Movie. Large budgets buy you slick production values by default; what matters most is story, and Frankenweenie is as rudimentary as it gets.

The movie centers on a little boy named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his cute dog, Sparky. Victor's dad (Martin Short) encourages him to join the softball team, instead of spending every waking hour making monster movies in his attic. During one of the games, Sparky runs after a ball that Victor has knocked out of the park, and gets hit by a car. Later, while half paying attention during science class, Victor learns about the body's ability to conduct electricity--and decides to dig up and reanimate his beloved pet.

From here, Frankenweenie becomes a grade school version of Pet Sematary, with Sparky coming back a little different than before (still loyal and friendly, but without the requisite parts to, say, digest water or keep flies from crawling out of his stitched-up throat). A classmate named Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer) wants to steal Victor's formula in order to get in with the cool kids, and before you know it, a gaggle of not-quite-right animals have been resurrected. There are Sea Monkey gremlins, a mummy-slug, a cat-bat, and something else I don't care enough to remember; there's also an old windmill that gets set ablaze, serving as the story's climactic backdrop.

Believe me, I'm as bored typing this out as you are reading it.

The only bright spot is Victor's under-utilized science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, doing a variation on his Bela Lugosi voice from Ed Wood). His explanation for why lightning sometimes strikes people is hilarious and inventive in a way that the next seventy minutes are decidedly not. Rzykruski exits the picture way too early, on the heels of a bogus and confusing town meeting in which the citizens of New Holland--all of whom have mysteriously become anti-science fundamentalists--blame him for all their problems. This scene might have worked had the film been specifically (or even tangentially) about Science Versus Superstition; as it stands, it's an awkward soapbox planted squarely in the middle of a boy-and-his-(zombie)-dog story.

What's stunning about Frankenweenie is its lack of imagination. It is devoid of colors both figurative and literal, and I'm surprised that Disney shelled out almost $40 million for a ten-steps-back vanity project built around Burton's tired sad-boy shtick. I've disliked almost every movie the man has made in the last two decades, but I rarely thought they lacked personality. This thing is full of monotone characters who seem to live in a town polluted by a leaky Prozac factory.

Had Burton and screenwriter John August learned the most important lesson from the classic monster movies they hold so dear, maybe the film would have stood a chance. James Whale and Tod Browning broke new ground in storytelling and filmmaking in the 1930s, as evidenced by the fact that people have been ripping them off or paying Frankenweenie-esque homage to them ever since. But Burton and company's spiffy, new, labor-intensive production does nothing to advance the medium and says nothing new about the source material. Hell, Frankenhooker was a better homage than this: Frank Henenlotter used a handful of iconographic touchstones to tell a bold, wacky new story, where Burton just puts on a glorified school play.

The only way you're likely to get anything out of Frankenweenie is if you've managed to live in a pop-culture-proof bubble for eighty years--or if you're under the age of ten. All I took away from it was a heartfelt wish for someone to come along and create a new cinematic language, one that inspires not only copycats but visionaries, too. Tim Burton used to be one of those, or at least had the potential to become one. But his output has gradually become an imitation of art, a hunk of too-long-dead flesh into which life simply cannot be breathed.

*All of this begs the question, "Why bother seeing it, then?" Two answers: 1. Avoiding every movie that you think looks terrible guarantees a life free of surprises. 2. The only alternative was Taken 2.