Monday, October 15, 2012

Frankenweenie - Theatrical Review

Release Date: October 5, 2012

Remember when you used to look forward to the next Tim Burton film with heated anticipation? Well you can rejoice because Frankenweenie, while not one of the best films the director has ever made, is most certainly the long awaited return to form we have been waiting for.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 16 Tyler Galleria
Time: 5:55 pm October 7, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG
Film Runtime: 1 hr 30 min
Studio: Disney

Loves: Tim Burton pre-Planet of the Apes
Likes: Horror homages, stop-motion animation   
Neutral: Remakes (especially from the same person)
Hates: Tim Burton post-Planet of the Apes   
Fact: This "new" feature from Tim Burton is actually a remake of his 1984 short film Frankenweenie

In the quaint town of New Holland there lives a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (Voiced by Charlie Tahan). Gifted with an intellect far superior to most adults, young Victor spends most of his days conducting science experiments in the attic with his loyal canine Sparky. Things change for Victor though the day he meets his new science teacher Mr. Ryzkruski (Voiced by Martin Landau) whose focus on more primal scientific techniques inspires him. Then one day after a tragic accident that leaves poor Sparky six feet under, Victor takes that inspiration and attempts his greatest experiment yet with the resurrection of Sparky from the grave. Once his experiment succeeds however, he must find a way to avoid his curious fellow students and questioning parents or risk losing Sparky all over again.

To say that Tim Burton has been on a downward slope for the past decade would be a severe understatement (his recent film "Dark Shadows" was voted worst film of the summer by us on The LRA Show). He has been stuck in this tragic cycle of making adaptation after adaptation and never fully understanding that it was never his interpretation of existing works that made us fall under his spell more than two decades ago, it was his original stories mixed with his unusual artistic trappings that we all fell in love with. His first stop-motion feature film (as a director anyways) "Frankenweenie" harkens back to a time when his films were filled with loveable characters, a quirky sense of humor and a distinctly unique charm.

Victor loves his loyal dog Sparky.

"Frankenweenie" is just a good bit of harmless fun all told. There isn't anything particularly remarkable about it nor is there anything all that wrong with it. It's aesthetically pleasing with its distinct throwback visual style and those adorably off the wall character designs that are associated with every Tim Burton production are still a joy to behold. Even the story of a boy who lost his dog and his yearning to have him back is simple and heartfelt in the best possible way. There really is no way anyone can truly dislike it without losing a bit of their soul in the process.

Unlike his most recent work, Burton makes all the right choices this time around. From the setting, to the voice actors (no relying on Johnny Depp this time around thank goodness) to the intricacies and beauty of stop-motion animation; there isn't a misstep to be found. The heart of the film is something everyone can relate to, a boy and his dog, we have all lost a favorite pet at some point that we wish we could have back, children and adults alike will likely find themselves moved by the not-so-subtle touches Burton infuses into this homage to horror films (most specifically "Frankenstein") and the friendship between a pet and its owner. This is one of the most endearing films the director has ever made.

He loves him so much that he is willing to bring him back from the dead.

Burton doesn't slack in the entertainment department either giving us a cadre of colorfully bizarre characters to follow. Victor, as strange as he seems, is actually one of the more normal characters found in the film, especially when compared to his fellow classmates. There is the conniving Edgar 'E' Gore (Voiced by Atticus Shaffer), the sinister Toshiaki (Voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao), the bumbling Bob (Voiced by Robert Capron), the devious Nassor (Voiced by Martin Short) and the extremely weird girl (Voiced by Catherine O'Hara) and her cat Mr. Whiskers who just so happens to have an uncanny ability to predict a person's future with it's feces.

While Sparky was a fun character (loved his first venture out of the house after he was brought back to life), it were those characters as well as Vincent's parents (both also voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short) and the strange girl next door Elsa Van Helsing (Voiced by Winona Ryder) that really gave the film some much needed energy and spark beyond the pleasing visuals. Their increased involvement throughout the course of events leading up to the surprisingly bombastic finale lent the film a good deal of personality and helped keep things from becoming too stale.

Victor's classmates are up to no good.

Speaking of the visuals, other than the obvious choice of animation, the other striking visual element is Burton's use of a strict black and white color palette. It can easily be surmised that this was done because of the obvious connections to those classic monster movies such as "Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman", but most will be surprised by just how well it works with his visual style. This isn't just a gimmick either, the usual tactile feel of the characters and environments associated with stop-motion animation is amplified to new heights and benefits greatly from the limited shades of grey and deep blacks. Seeing a scene such as when the townsfolk chase after Sparky with their torches in hand looks visually dazzling in stark black and white as does the entire film.

The downfall to all of this is that unless you are a fan of Tim Burton (past or present) your enjoyment may vary. As beloved as his directing style is, it hasn't changed much over the past three decades and "Frankenweenie's" throwback nature to his past work doesn't help his growth as a filmmaker any. He still knows how to create a quirky world unlike any other director working today, but that is still his strongest and most overused asset. Compelling characters and stories are still absent from most of his work (with the sole exception of perhaps "Ed Wood"). Anyone looking for something different from his usual trademark visual style will likely be fairly underwhelmed by his latest animated venture, as will anyone looking to get emotionally invested in it.

The black and white palette creates a striking image at times.

Regardless of your expectations for innovations or fresh material from the imagination of Tim Burton, there is no denying this is a true return to form for him. Then again anything made after the dismal "Dark Shadows" can only be considered a step forward. He wasn't shooting for the moon with "Frankenweenie", he was just making an endearing tale of a boy and his dog with a lovingly crafted horror genre backdrop that is light enough for the kids to enjoy and visually attractive enough to keep an adults interest level up during its mercifully short length. In the end "Frankenweenie" won't reinvent the wheel but for fans of Burton's past work who have been waiting patiently for a return to the wild inventiveness and trademark quirk, this is a definitive step in the right direction and cause for optimism for the director's future work but may leave some wishing the director would try something a little different next time.





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