Monday, October 8, 2012

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Lookit, boy!  That's you!
Tim Burton's use of stop animation, that is.  Frankenweenie is this week's experiment and a successful one it was, too.  I have to admit that I didn't much care for the title, which I don't think fits the story all that well - maybe it fit Burton's original live-action short thirty years ago better, but I'm willing to let that go as a minor quibble.  Frankenweenie is a love letter to the old Universal Studio horror films of the the 1930s and these were the films that (in many ways) shaped our view of what the "monster movie" should be. There are lots of little nods to James Whale's granddaddy of horror films, Frankenstein, here.  It's rendered in black and white as were the original films and I think the B&W adds a certain nostalgic charm. (It also lets you set up Gothic angles and let the scare spring from the shadows, which can heighten the dread.)  The hero, who simply wants to bring back his beloved Sparky, is Victor, which is the name of the mad scientist in the original. The sweet girl next door is Elsa, a tip of the top hat to Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride in the sequel.  One of the resurrected pets is a turtle named Shelly, which might have to do with the turtle's shell, but probably is a sly wink to Mary Shelley, who wrote the original Frankenstein in the first quarter of the 1800s.

Look for grace notes throughout - Elsa's poodle, who is named for the ancient Greek Queen of Death, goes full-on Bride after her nose touches one of Sparky's (love the name!) bolts, Victor has a would-be assistant who seems very familiar, and the town just so happens to have a fully operational windmill, which is crucial in the first Frankenstein movie.  Also, Shelly the turtle is transformed by his Japanese owner into an animated Gamera for the climactic fight sequence, showing that Burton's love for horror/comedy blends extends beyond the shores of America.  There's even a slavering mob with torches, although I did not notice any pitchforks.  Also - for anyone who's ever shot their own film - we first see Sparky as he stars in one of Victor's wonderfully creative monster movies.  Burton knows the power of making your own stories.

A few sequences might be too intense for very young or sensitive children - after all, you don't reanimate a beloved pet without first losing the pet to the icy grip of Death and there's a sequence in a creepy pet cemetery where Victor goes to retrieve Sparky - but overall, it's a fun, family-friendly ride and a delight to look at.  (For a long time, I've thought that Burton finds horror in the so-called normal. Watch the baseball game, which is usually a sign of "ordinary suburbia, nothing to see here, move along.")  Frankenweenie has lessons here about loss, love, science, and hope, as well as some wonderful vocal performances.  Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder both have prominent roles here and it's good to see part of the old team back together.  Martin Landau, who also is part of the Burton stable, is the slightly mad Old World science teacher who inadvertently gives Victor the idea of harnessing electricity in the first place.

Fun flick, made even better if you've seen the early films Burton is referencing.  If you haven't, now's a fine time of the year to catch up.  These original films are short - most are under an hour and a half - and quite worth your time.  2012 is Universal's centennial, so they're re-releasing all sort of cleaned up "creatures from the vault" - add a few to your viewing lists.  I'd suggest Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (which just might be one of those rare sequels that tops the original), and Dracula as absolute must-sees, but there are plenty more.  You know what they say about monsters - you see one, but a dozen more are lurking in the shadows!

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