[5 October 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It more than likely started when Winona Ryder walked onscreen during the opening act of Beetlejuice. Decked out like a dead bride and wearing a “woe is me” attitude in both wardrobe and wit, Goth introduced itself to mainstream moviegoers…and Tim Burton was soon crowned its creative king. Granted, there were other examples of doom and gloom teens dressed like Alice Cooper’s unofficial offspring circling around the cinema, but for the most part, the man behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and the first Batman reboot, gave the darker side of life an amicable comic spin. Fast forward a few years and there are many who believe the once celebrated filmmaker has overstayed his brazenly baroque welcome.
So how odd is it that Disney, the company that canned Burton after they felt he wasted their money on a live action short entitled Frankenweenie, is back banking the House of Mouse’s money on the director and his weird, wonderful stop motion animation take on same. In a circumstance that only big box office can support (read: the massive international success of Alice in Wonderland), Burton has returned to former form, so to speak, reinvesting his tale of a boy and his undead dog with a splash that recalls the best of the animated artform (Rankin-Bass, friend and frequent collaborator Henry Selick) with obvious references to the horror films and icons that inspired him in the first place. Though the subject matter and style may be a bit too frightening for some kids, the overall result is a clever, cheeky homage.
Little Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) loves science. So do the other oddball students at New Holland Elementary School. While his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) wish he would do something other than obsess on genre movies, work on inventions, and play with his dog Sparky, they love their special son. One day, during a baseball game, the family pet runs out into the street and is hit by a car. Devastated, Victor vows to bring him back to life. With the help of inspiration from eccentric teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) and the upcoming science fair, he taps into the area’s ever-present lightning and does just that. Naturally, his classmates want to understand just how he did it, and will stop at nothing to find the secret. When they do, they wind up creating their own collection of homemade monstrosities, leading the town to take up torches and pitchforks.
For the first few minutes of Frankenweenie, we are convinced that Burton’s continuing path toward career irrelevance is continuing unabashed. Even when Landau’s Vincent Price-inspired instructor character shows up, his mouth filled with hundreds of misaligned teeth, we sense a desperate director struggling, not a pure visionary at the top of his game. Even as the Universal horror oriented laboratory set-piece kicks in, we can’t get the Burton basics out of our head. They include the Weird Girl with a skeletal face and a delightfully deadpan feline companion, the Igor like chum/challenger to young Victor, and other members of our lead’s surreal peer group. Even when nasty neighbor Mayor Bergermeister shows up to shout down everyone, the link to something like Santa Claus is Coming to Town feels forced.
But then Frankenweenie finds its own voice, and the remaining running time is like a far more polished and mainstream take on ParaNorman. While that criminally overlooked effort failed to connect with the kiddies, Burton almost guarantees a new underage cult. He champions the intelligent and the odd. He doesn’t talk over or down to the audience (like the horrible hit Hotel Transylvania does). It knows its origins and exploits them well and there is never a moment when we think the director will pull his punches and paste on an unnecessary happy ending (though the short and its full length cousin conclude in a similar manner). Instead, the film just finds its footing, and continues to pile on the smiles long after the credits have rolled.
For many over the intended demographical age limit, Frankenweenie will be full of nutty nostalgia. It offers nods to almost all the horror tropes both internal and external to the genre. We have hints of Hammer, AIP, EC Comics, and the ‘80s revival via direct-to-video. The characters are composites of standard macabre archetypes while the narrative arc follows the Mary Shelley inspired cinematic namesake to a fault. All of this will fly over the heads of the pre-teen audience while keeping the often disgruntled parents in attendance alert and laughing. Burton clearly loves to make movies forged from the past. He’s the Quentin Tarantino of terror.
It’s also his aesthetic Achilles Heel. Instead of expanding his frame of reference and working outside his comfort zone, Burton has become that most criticized of cinematic visionaries - the brand. Like such hallowed names as Hitchcock and Spielberg, you can almost predict what this filmmaker will feature once the lights go down. In essence, they all become borderline cliches, creating a cultural consciousness that they rarely shake. In the case of Frankenweenie, Burton is doubly pigeonholed. Not only is he tackling subject matter he’s (and we are) more than familiar with, he’s doing so via remaking himself…and even then, the approach is the only thing that’s really different. Frankenweenie‘s artistic ambition is amazing. The story is stuck in the same Burton benchmarks.
Still when you consider how far we’ve come in just a couple of decades (Disney’s past decision was also based on how “horrific” they thought the subject matter was), the telling triumvirate of ParaNorman, Hotel Transylvania, and Frankenweenie make it very clear that fear is the new black. No, this movie won’t spawn suggestive nightmares on behalf of your underlings. It will merely underscore the continuing influence of Goth givens in our everyday life. At one time, being weird, dark, and brooding was a social stigma. As this fun film shows, it’s now every child’s cheeky ambition.