Monday, November 19, 2012

The Cinema File #29: "Frankenweenie" Review

 In a year with one of the best stop motion animated films of the last ten years, I can't help but wonder if Frankenweenie suffers from coming out just a little bit too late.

I've got a poster of Paranorman up on my wall (Thanks Eric!). As I've said before on this blog, it's still my favorite movie this year, which is saying something, considering this is also the year we finally got a good Spiderman movie, a good Judge Dredd movie, and Ben Affleck's masterpiece Argo. And then, a few months after Paranorman came along, we got Frankenweenie, the latest animated feature by Tim Burton, adapted and expanded from his short film of the same name. Frankenweenie is by no means a bad movie, but I don't think its possible to come away from it without feeling like the animated baton was out there, waiting to be passed, and this movie just couldn't quite reach it.

The story follows a boy who uses arcane kid science and the frequent lightning storms that plague his neighborhood to bring his recently dead dog back to life. That sounds like a description that a hack might end with the phrase "and wackiness ensues," but the first problem I see with Frankenweenie is that not much of anything really ensues after the initial resurrection occurs. The plot of the short film is expanded using young Victor's classmates, who steal the secret to bring their own pets back to life, with disastrous results for the town. The climactic chaos is fun to a point and a nice tribute to the classic universal horror monsters, but when it comes to the (sort of) title character of the movie, the dog, there's not really a whole lot going on. He runs around and does dog stuff, and then comes in at the end to save the day. Maybe that's all you need, but it seems like the concept of an undead patchwork dog has more potential than this.

Or maybe it doesn't. Part of me questions whether this movie was necessary at all. Was this story, the extended version with all the new content not found in the original short, really worth the time and effort? Didn't Burton say all he needed to say with this premise in the short film? He obviously doesn't think so apparently, but seeing the final product, it feels a lot more like they are reaching to fill time than completing a long incomplete story. Its not that the filler isn't often fun to watch. The other kids and their mutant pet creations are all amusing to various degrees, just not enough to justify expending the energy to engage as a viewer.

The other side characters are mostly just there, with little distinction or impact on me beyond in some cases mild annoyance. Victor's parents are fairly bland, and it would appear by design. The mayor comes off as unintentionally creepy due to his strange facial movements, and his daughter is introduced in such a way that I have to think she was a love interest for Victor at one point in an earlier draft, which was scrapped, leaving her mostly irrelevant. Its weird to think that they would take something like that out considering how light the story is as it stands. The only stand out is the science teacher played by Martin Landau, who pulls off the have crazed mad scientist very well and provides one of the funniest moments in the movie when his dedication to science is put up against the ignorance of the townspeople.

And speaking of the design, the physical look of these characters seems almost deliberately limited, to the film's clear detriment. The mouths and eyes move so little, and the expressions are often frozen in place save for maybe an eyebrow switching to a different angle. Compare that with Paranorman, where the faces were so expressive and the emotional resonance was so much more powerful. The thing that makes it worse is that there's no reason for it. I'm trying to think of a stop motion animated film as bad as this one on that particular score, and I can't think of one. You get more emotional detail out of Jack Skellington, and he didn't even have a face. There's no excuse for it.

That comparison with Paranorman is something I can't help but keep going back to. In every way, Paranorman outpaces Frankenweenie easily, in such a way as to suggest the producers of the latter film almost didn't try as hard. So many of the flaws seem easily fixable, and while the final product is still generally charming and entertaining, it just seems sort of hollow. I'd recommend catching this movie on DVD if it interests you at all, but its pretty safe to skip the theaters. Its the kind of movie that comes and goes, never making much of an impact either way. I don't see anyone looking back on Frankenweenie as a classic ten years from now, which by itself is obviously an unfair standard for any movie, but when another studio showed us all how its done just a few months before, I almost feel bad for it.

Hell, it was better than Dark Shadows anyway.
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