Frankenweenie

Tim Burton seems to be back on his game.  His heavy duty fans have always prized him for his grotesquerie, his highly visual black comedy akin in spirit to Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. He’s at his best with simple fairytale-structured stories in the mode of Tod Browning, usually involving an alienated monster (or lesser weirdo) who doesn’t fit in but eventually finds happiness by bonding with other outcasts.

His genius (and I think he possesses one) is primarily visual. He is at his best when he either sticks to his own formula, a la Vincent (1982), Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), or has a happy marriage with someone else’s, as in the Batman films, Ed Wood and Mars Attacks. Actually, I really love all of his films until Planet of the Apes (2001), whereupon he seems truly to have lost his way. The decline seems to me to start with Sleepy Hollow (1999) which looks absolutely gorgeous and has some clever conceits, but no actual characters to care about. But starting around ten years ago, Hollywood seems to have begun to eat him out from the inside. In Apes, he completely abandoned his own sensibilities, both visually and in terms of storytelling, in the service of a “Hollywood blockbuster”. And think of the opportunity there to design the look of those apes and their science fiction world! Instead, we were left with less than nothing. I recall being moved to tears by Big Fish (2003), but today for the life of me I can’t remember a damn thing about it — not a good sign. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) was vastly inferior to the original, another lost opportunity. I’ve heard good things about Corpse Bride (2005) and Sweeney Todd (2007) although I’ve not seen the former, and switched the latter off after about ten minutes, due to a personal aversion to the music of Steven Sondheim. I reckon I  need to see the first and give the second another chance.  Alice in Wonderland (2010) is easily one of his worst and least characteristic films, another huge disappointment. It bugs the hell out of me that he is now billed as “the director of Alice in Wonderland” as opposed to, say, one of his good films. But apparently, in this despicable, nonsensical universe, Alice is his largest grossing movie (Lewis Carroll would approve for all the wrong reasons). I have high hopes for Dark Shadows, but it’s still sitting in my Netflix queue with a “very long wait”. Long story short, at least for me, Burton has “gone away for awhile”.

Now. I’ve seen some idiotic critics write that with Frankenweenie Burton is “repeating himself.” Fire those critics for malfeasance. Firstly, since the film is an expansion of a short Burton made in 1984, isn’t it a tad more accurate to say that those earlier features were repetitions of Frankeweenie? But furthermore, they miss the whole freaking point. His best movies are fairy tales, and fairy tales are about formula. It’s no accident that his longest working relationship has been at Disney. In a Disney animated film I want a formula, and in a Tim Burton film I want a formula. I want a VERY simple, accessible story, told with beautiful pictures. And that’s what we get in Frankenweenie, for which I’m grateful.

The film is basically Frankenstein meets Old Yeller. Lonely boy loses dog…then rebuilds him. Along the way, he strives to deal with kind but clueless parents, a teacher who inspires him to do dangerous things, and a class full of dumb kids he doesn’t like. When they attempt to copy his experiment with their own dead pets, all hell breaks loose.

A problematic aspect of the worlds Burton creates (this is just as true of Frankenweenie as many of his earlier films), is that the “mainstream, normal” people are, in the John Waters vein, just as grotesque as the supposedly monstrous hero. In this case our hero is young Victor Frankenstein…and his schoolmates are a hunchback, a Karloff clone, a grossly obese boy, and a kid from a Japanese monster movie. So…if both he and they are characters from monster movies, what’s the problem? But you can make the case that “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Hell and loneliness are states of mind, and this is particularly true of the adolescent, whom Burton seems to understand so entirely.

As in earlier films, there is also a dreamlike confusion about time. The kitschy aesthetics tell us it is the early 1960s; several lines in the script tell us it is the present. In short, Burton works in a dream-space of vagueness…just like the German expressionists he so admires. You don’t approach this with your head. You approach it with your gut. Does this affect me, or does it not? For the most part, this a film simple enough to mix real emotion (what’s sadder than a kid losing his dog?) with genuine cleverness (rampant monster movie references, all rung with new changes). And you sit back and say “ooh” and “ah” and “ha ha ha” and enjoy yourself. Or you don’t, in which case, hit the bricks, turkey.

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