December 27, 2012

Frankenweenie (12/27)

Lettergrade: C-

Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie, a feature length remake of his own 1984 short film of the same name, kinda bombed back when it was released in September. I think I understand why... I was reluctant to see it myself because I wasn't sure how a story about a boy bringing his recently deceased dog back to life ala the Frankenstein monster would be able to overcome its own premise's innate darkness and survive as a entertaining family movie. Now that I've seen it on DVD, I'm pretty convinced that indeed that is what sinks it. Well, that, I suppose, plus that it feels like a 25 minute idea stretched to a feature's length.

Long ago, I remember my buddy Duane saying that part of the reason that The Simpsons show had to be animated was because a big audience wouldn't be able to take a live-action depiction a family that was so negatively dysfunctional under its comedy veneer. I think the same principle (or rather an inversion of it) sort of applies to Frankenweenie. In the original live-action short film, it is perhaps a little easier to swallow the idea of Sparky getting hit by a car (and later dug up and resurrected by the little boy who owned him) because the dog is obviously an animal actor, the boy's line delivery is a little clunky, and the movie at large sort of plays like campy farce rather than something meant to be taken all that seriously.

Burton succeeded at making this new animated version more convincing and with a much bigger heart, but in a way those same qualities make the material a lot more problematic. The dog is able to express and emote a bit more, thanks to the personality and soul the animators give him, and as such it is more disturbing not only to see his death, but also to see his poorly stitched-together body walking around for much of the movie (although it should be noted that he seems perfectly happy to be doing so). Nevertheless, parts of Sparky routinely fall off and must be reattached throughout the film (successfully giving me a serious case of the willies) and the even creepier image I can't stop thinking about is when Sparky would swallow the flies that buzz around his rotting body, only to have have flies promptly escape through a loose stitching in his neck from where young Victor had surgically reattached his head! Any touch that makes the dog more "real" also made me think about what Victor had to do to bring him back, and simultaneously makes me think that this kid is fucked up beyond all description and needs to be placed under the care of some serious mental health professionals immediately.

And that goes double for the film's ending… I'll try to talk about it without giving much away, but suffice to say that at the end of a story like Frankenweenie, you might expect the sentiment to be something along the lines of, "hey you probably shouldn't dig up your dog who was hit by a car and then run excessive amounts of electricity through him in an attempt to reanimate his mangled corpse." You know... something about not messing with the natural order of life and death, kinda like in the original "Frankenstein" story and in the similarly themed Pet Cemetary (or even Jurassic Park), et al. Nothing of the sort happens, though. This is a film where there are zero consequences - legal or otherwise - or learned lessons at the end. The dog is still around - with the town's blessing, apparently - and no one's going to jail for the massive amount of property destruction that happened during the picture's 3rd act.

Does that really matter? Probably not to the movie's core audience, but I think it's a little sad that Burton had 28 years or so to think about what he might do with a feature-length version of this material, and it came time to do it, what wound up on screen is so limp. 2005's Corpse Bride wasn't as much fun as 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas - Burton's first foray into feature-length stop-motion - but it made up for it with a better story and by being a better movie. Frankenweenie kinda runs out of juice early and never really justifies its expanded run time.

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