Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with some thoughts on Tim Burton’s newest foray into stop-motion animation. As a kid (bear with me a bit, this is an AICN review afterall) obsessed with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, I sought out any and every Tim Burton anything I could. I know I saw his original Frankenweenie short before I was able to track down Vincent and I was definitely taken with it.
Burton and black and white go together like Karloff and Lugosi. If you watch Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd or The Corpse Bride you’ll notice that even though he’s shooting in color his lighting is already halfway to a Universal monster movie. The man loves his hard-edged shadows and high contrast, what can I say? Ed Wood looked amazing in black and white and the only two movies of his I can watch and think he didn’t want to shoot in black and white are Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Frankenweenie begins with a 16mm movie shot by young Victor Frankenstein. It’s actually a kind of brilliant intro to the film because it lets the audience know it’s okay to have fun with this movie.
The home movie is directed by Victor with nothing but his toys, some cardboard cityscapes, a ton of imagination and his trusty dog, Sparky, fully decked out in a homemade monster dog outfit. Yes, this foreshadows things that happen later in the movie, but it really does seem to me to be a celebration of the fun of movie making. You see primitive stop motion (think army men slowly inching from point A to point B in seemingly random jumps through space), cheesy Ed Wood style flying saucer effects and all the fun clichés of bad giant monster movies.
That sense of fun infects the rest of the movie, which might not be as expertly put together as The Corpse Bride or the Burton produced and influenced The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s not trying to be. At its heart the movie is simply about a boy and his dog.
Sure, invisible fish, a Vincent Price-esque creepily enthusiastic science teacher and more movie references than you can throw a stick at surround it, but the movie lives and dies by the way Victor and Sparky’s friendship plays out.
In that matter, the film is a huge success. I gave a shit when Sparky… well, you know he has to die in order to be brought back to life, so that’s not much of a spoiler, but still… typing that makes me feel like ducking pissed off talkbacks/emails/tweets.
Victor and Sparky are definitely believable friends and the animators give Sparky so much life, little things any dog owner will immediately recognize and connect with, that gave this rather silly movie a sense of reality.
Don’t worry, there’s still a whole lot of bizarre stuff in this film, moreso than even I was expecting to be honest. My favorite is pretty obvious from the trailer, but Weird Girl (as voiced by Catharine O’Hara) is out of this world. With her beady eyes and Luna Lovegood line delivery, she makes every scene she’s in instantly interesting to watch.
Another standout is Martin Landau’s Mr. Rzykruski (which sounds suspiciously like “Mr. Rice Krispies” when people address him in the movie, by the way), Victor’s new science teacher who adds another dimension to this boy-gets-dog, boy-loses-dog, boy-reanimates-dog story. Rzykruski is loud, controversial, but inspiring as a teacher.
And Landau rocks it, giving Rzykruski giving the character so much energy and enthusiasm it immediately triggers your adoration of that perfect teacher you had, the one that made learning fun and really inspired you to go out and chase your dreams.
I have some quibbles with the pacing and structure… there’s no real arc for our main character that feels earned, for instance. There are also no real consequences for any actions in the movie and the finale is big and fun and full of references (everything from Frankenstein to Ghoulies, believe it or not), but short on any sense of driving towards a resolution. However, by the time we get there I liked these characters, I liked the world and I believed in the friendship between this boy and this dog and that’s what is important because that’s the movie.
There are other through-lines, sure, but at the end of the day Burton sets it up at the very beginning as being a movie all about Tim Burton playing with his toys and putting on a show for us. That sense of personal connection and fun is strong and it’s what holds Frankenweenie above a lot of his more recent work.
I also have to give him credit for embracing the older style of stop motion, the Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen style where you can feel the fingerprints of the animators as the clothes on the puppets wrinkle a bit frame to frame. The instinct for many stop motion filmmakers now is to make the motion as smooth as possible, which is a technical achievement, but I find a lot of warmth comes through from seeing the edges of the technology and was pleasantly surprised to see it utilized almost as a style choice in this film.
I was quite taken with Frankenweenie. It’s a good year for genre stop motion fans. ParaNorman was solid and Frankenweenie is immensely enjoyable. Let’s hope this vibrant art form sticks around for many more years to come.
Make sure to follow me on Twitter to get my live reactions as I dive headfirst into Fantastic Fest! Lots of good lookin’ stuff on the horizon!