Friday, October 5, 2012

Frankenweenie: Delightfully ghoulish dog's tale

Frankenweenie (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and whimsical horror
By Derrick Bang

Sometimes, revenge truly is a dish best served coffin-cold.

In the early 1980s, several years before Tim Burton became the deliciously macabre fantasist we all know and love, he was just another young animator at the Walt Disney Studios. Early assignments included conceptual art and animation on The Fox and the Hound, TRON and The Black Cauldron, although he received no credit for these efforts.

The family, during happier times: Young Victor shares his most recent amateur movie
with his mother and father, while the short film's primary star — Victor's beloved dog,
Sparky — takes his usual place, front and center. Sadly, things are about to get
rather grim for poor Sparky.
Young Burton was much more interested in making his own shorts, which was encouraged by Disney at the time (as always has been the case with Pixar). The first, 1982’s Vincent, was a six-minute, black-and-white, stop-motion tone-poem about a little boy who imagined that he was Vincent Price; the actor himself supplied the narration.

Next up was 1984’s Frankenweenie, a 29-minute live-action short — again in black-and-white — about a little boy who took rather desperate measures after his beloved dog was hit and killed by a car. The cast featured Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and young Barret Oliver, who had a popular run during the ’80s in films such as The NeverEnding Story, D.A.R.Y.L. and Cocoon.

Frankenweenie was to be Burton’s last act at Disney. The studio fired him, insisting — and you gotta love this — that he had wasted the company’s money while making a film that was too dark and morbid to be viewed by children.

Happily, Paul Reubens was among the few who saw Frankenweenie, and he immediately hired Burton to helm Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The rest, as they say, is history.

Flash-forward to the present day, as Burton unveils his expanded, full-length version of Frankenweenie ... but now animated, in the stop-motion style of Vincent, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Needless to say, it’ll be adored by his legion of fans.

And the irony is scrumptious: The film is released by Disney.

The stop-motion medium notwithstanding, this updated Frankenweenie is impressively faithful to its source, with whole sections and dialogue exchanges lifted intact. (This can be verified easily; both Vincent and the original Frankenweenie are packaged with the DVD of Nightmare before Christmas.) The entire first act is essentially identical, as is the aftermath of the climax.

The new material — supplied by scripter John August, who has written for Burton since 2003’s Big Fish — comes by way of a hilariously ghoulish second chapter, as some of our young hero’s schoolmates rather unwisely tamper with things best left alone.

Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is an intelligent, imaginative but mostly friendless little boy who lives with his parents in New Holland, another of the oddly time-locked, Burton-esque suburban neighborhoods that go all the way back to Edward Scissorhands. Dad (Martin Short) is the family breadwinner, heading to work each day; Mom (Catherine O’Hara) cleans the house and then lounges about, inevitably in heels, pearls and the sort of dress more appropriate for dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Very June Cleaver and Leave It to Beaver-ish, in other words ... the classic American suburbia that existed only in the warped imaginations of 1950s Hollywood.

Aside from science projects and making amateur movies, Victor’s life is brightened by his faithful and beloved bull terrier, Sparky. The two are inseparable, except when Victor must attend school; Sparky occupies those hours by snuffling through the fence at the night-black poodle that lives next door. That would be Persephone, owned by the dour and soulful Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), forced to live with her pompous uncle, Mr. Burgemeister (also voiced by Short), who happens to be mayor of New Holland.

Imagine Morticia, of The Addams Family, as a little girl; that’ll give you a bead on Elsa.

She’s pretty much the only neighborhood kid who “gets” Victor, although he’s too wrapped up in his own world to notice. Worse yet, Victor is pestered constantly by Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), an obnoxious, simpering toady who clearly couldn’t be trusted as far as he could be thrown; and the local “weird girl” (O’Hara again), and her oddly creepy cat, Mr. Whiskers.

Alas, tragedy strikes and Sparky departs this mortal coil, laid to rest in a pet cemetery that Stephen King would adore. (Watch for the tombstone that reads “Goodbye Kitty.”) Distraught almost beyond endurance, Victor perks up only after watching an experiment performed by his Vincent Price-esque school science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau).

A bit of electricity, and a dead frog’s legs jerk spasmodically. What sort of result, Victor wonders, might a bigger charge produce?

Before you can say Boris Karloff, Victor has transformed the family attic into a crazy-quilt laboratory straight out of Universal Studios ... or, more accurately, straight out of Burton’s original short, by way of the marvelous set design found in Universal’s 1931 production of Frankenstein.

We all know how it turned out for that Victor Frankenstein, and the results are no different this time. And, similarly, young Victor decides that it would be wise to conceal his reanimated pooch ... who, in his excitement, often wags stray body parts off. But some secrets are too big to be kept for long, particularly once the ghastly Edgar comes sniffing around.

Before long, the “secret” is common knowledge among Edgar and three other kids — Nassor, Toshiaki and Bob — who view Victor’s experiments as the key to winning the school science fair. And you just know that won’t turn out well...

Stop-motion seems the perfect medium for this tale; the spindly-legged puppets and their oddly erratic movements amplify the mildly disturbing setting and atmosphere of, well, impending doom. Cinematographer Peter Sorg’s grayscale color palette also feels right, both because it harkens back to all those 1930s Universal monster movies, and because such stories just feel right in black-and-white; shadows are darker, while flashes of electricity are more starkly bright.

But if the human characters amble about in whimsical parodies of real-world people, animation director Trey Thomas and his crew make Sparky 100 percent faithful to his doggy-ness. He runs, jumps, chases his tail and bounds about Victor’s back yard just like an actual pooch, complete with the buoyant, eager-to-please grin of a creature who understands that his job in life — and death — is to be unbridled love on four legs.

Indeed, Sparky’s behavior feels so genuine that we tend to forget he isn’t an actual, real-world dog ... which makes his eventual fate that much more heartbreaking.

When it isn’t morbidly funny, of course. Or mildly disgusting.

A few of August’s plot threads stray in odd directions or remain unresolved, perhaps because everybody gets sidetracked when New Holland is invaded by ... well ... the stuff of nightmares. Mr. Burgemeister’s insistence that his niece perform at the New Holland Dutch Day celebration (with candles?) never quite fits in with the rest of the story, particularly when we’re forced to watch the poor girl stumble through a lengthy song that’s bizarre even by this film’s standards.

I’m also not satisfied with the way things work out between Elsa and Victor, or — for that matter — the similar manner in which the “weird girl” sorta-kinda vanishes during the climax.

But these are minor quibbles, certainly not intrusive enough to interfere with the film’s greater joys. Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman provides another of his energetic, effervescent scores, and the composer has a field day with the third act’s monster-laden hijinks.

None of this story would work, of course, if we didn’t accept and believe in the core relationship: the mutual devotion shared by a dog and his boy ... even if the dog has electrodes, and the boy would be better off inhabiting the Twilight Zone.

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