Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)
Stop motion may be the most limited of all animation mediums, but it attracts a certain breezy storytelling sensibility when done right, and the last few decades have seen a few delightful instances of the form being stretched and reevaluated in an attempt to sell it to a new generation of kids raised on MoCap and CGI — Fantastic Mr. Fox and Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts are the most ambitious and enjoyable, even if much of their excellence relies on the quality of their writing. Sadly, audiences have mostly stayed away from these projects in their theatrical releases, with only Chicken Run a runaway hit (and one that’s now mostly forgotten), while Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Coraline achieved most of their success on video. Frankly, it’s difficult to blame audiences; both hand-drawn and CG animation are capable of a warmth and personality that’s nearly universally lacking in stop motion characters. Park has habitually come closest to overcoming this problem, but even his characters can be plagued at times with a certain stiffness. Speaking generally, the medium itself seems vaguely wasteful, given that it requires so much arduous preparation and meticulous craftiness to little final advantage over hand-drawn animation on the screen. It seems more a technical feat than an artistic one, but again, writers and directors have nevertheless used the form to tell wonderful stories in recent years.
There may be no more impassioned devotee of stop motion than Tim Burton, a member of the Cal Arts class known for generating Brad Bird and John Lasseter, among others, whose career began with a thoroughly delightful short claymation piece called Vincent. Burton produced Henry Selick’s first two films and supposedly crafted the concept behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, though contrary to widespread belief he neither wrote nor directed it. He gets far too much credit, indeed, for Nightmare and too little for 2005’s Corpse Bride, a refined and surprisingly mature elaboration upon Nightmare codirected with animator Mike Johnson. And now it seems that his most accomplished dip into the cartoon world thus far is destined to languish in near-obscurity. After Vincent, Burton of course went on to become one of the most successful directors of his generation, but before that he produced for Disney an amusing short live action comic film called Frankenweenie, about an alienated boy who reanimated his beloved dog after it was hit by a car. All these years later, Burton has remade the film, and has one-upped himself in comic possibilities, truly felt characterization, and sheer nerdy delight.
In doing so, he’s reasserted his own interest in risk-taking after a slew of remakes and vanity projects invariably starring Johnny Depp; one of those, Alice in Wonderland, made buckets of money for Disney and undoubtedly gave Burton license to do whatever he wanted next for the studio. He appears to have milked this arrangement for its full value, managing somehow to get a feature-length black & white film into a bulk of the nation’s theaters for the first time in nearly twenty years. The giddiness you feel upon realizing that you are about to see a monochromatic children’s film — yes, really — is justified, mercifully, by its witty script and brilliantly idiosyncratic characterization. The story remains mostly unchanged from the short, albeit with added complications and a third act that grows potentially unwieldy but handles its increased size with finesse almost until the conclusion, with moments that could easily have fallen flat (involving other pets brought back from the dead) becoming arrestingly well-tuned and funny. As a bonus, this is a Disney film with an entire sequence about how backward the United States is scientifically, and essentially — through the dialogue of a brilliantly barbed science teacher at a panicked PTA meeting — accusing the adults of the country of stifling their students’ potential with superstition and ignorance. It’s pointed, righteous, and the hardest time I think I’ve ever had restraining applause at a film screening.
No doubt, the appeal of Frankenweenie is more limited than that of your average family night at the movies, even taking into account the number of stop-motion films that have flopped in the last decade. And no doubt, Disney is aware of this. But I hope they’re taking into account how much this film is likely already coming to mean to a certain sector of the population, youths and adults alike but especially a certain type of sullen alienated child. Playing to the outsider in the back row has always produced Burton’s best work, which at its best can be genuinely breathtaking, and he hasn’t played to his own strengths so well since Mars Attacks! in 1996, a satire that blatantly thumbed its nose at mass appeal. This seems a return to the warmth, honesty, and actual comedy of his best films, evidence of gifts that once seemed just as important as all of his visual flair and production-design obsession. Films like Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands had a grounded wit that’s no longer associated with Burton, but here it is again. Idiosyncratic and good-hearted as it may be, what sticks with you about this is how much you laugh.
And although there are a few gross-out gags, at least one of them well-earned, much of the humor is low-key and occurs from things as natural and universal as clever character design, both of the various monsters that make their way across the screen in the third act and in the amusing fashioning of the children as classic-horror caricatures of masterminds and sidekicks, with affectations of Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee (who actually voices his counterpart), the elasticity and cartoon exaggeration of their faces and eyes as vital to the hilarious hint of Halloween tomfoolery as the brilliant and well-tuned voice acting. Everything is funny in Frankenweenie, but not everything is a gag, and certainly even the gags have a cumulative effect — one overriding emotion is how much affection Burton clearly has for the unforgettable horror films of the ’30s and ’40s to which he’s paying homage, which comes down even to Danny Elfman’s music. Elfman offers no songs this time around, which is all the better; it’s the subtlest, most backward-looking yet bold work he’s done in some time, something akin to the way it might have sounded if he’d scored Ed Wood.
Everything comes back finally to Burton’s faith in his lead character, Victor, a budding filmmaker serving almost certainly as a self-portrait. Unlike the kids in Super 8, he travels with no clique save unwittingly; he’s the loner so many of us recognize, often as ourselves, and these days perhaps we need the adolescent loner to be redefined again as a potential hero. The realness of the boy’s impatience with his family (and vice versa) and his lone solace being the dog upon whom he can project all manner of needs and warmth is enriching even if you carp with the potential blandness of his characterization, or the copout ending that allows Victor to revive his deceased puppy (the initial loss of whom is surprisingly moving) yet again… denying us a potentially strong, effective, even important finale that might have forced the boy to let go of something, to grow. Instead Burton can’t resist playing to the crowd one more time — and maybe, given that he is the future incarnation of Victor himself, that’s perfectly appropriate.