DAILY | Tim Burton and FRANKENWEENIE
This “reimagining of one of his earliest works into a black-and-white stop-motion adventure marks a slight return to form only because its ‘Burtonesque’ qualities are more charming than conventional.”
An entry on Fantastic Fest is
on the way here, but first, let’s have a quick look at initial critical reaction to the film that’s not only opened one of genre buffs’ favorite events but will also open the London Film Festival on October 10.
“Frankenweenie is probably Tim Burton’s best film in almost a decade, but that’s not much of a compliment,” begins Todd Gilchrist at the Playlist. “With his last five films, the filmmaker responsible for some of the most fun, mischievous and magical cinema of the past 25 years has settled into a disappointing routine of utterly safe ‘weirdness.’ But the reimagining of one of his earliest works into a black-and-white stop-motion adventure marks a slight return to form only because its ‘Burtonesque’ qualities are more charming than conventional.”
“That the word Burtonesque has become part of the cultural lexicon hints at the surprising influence Mr. Burton, 54, has accumulated in a directorial career that spans 16 features and nearly 30 years,” writes Dave Itzkoff at the top of a long, career-spanning interview with the director for the New York Times (Eric Kohn interviews Burton as well, for indieWIRE). “Across films as disparate as Ed Wood, Alice in Wonderland and Big Fish—released to varying critical and commercial receptions—he has developed a singular if not easily pinned-down sensibility. His style is strongly visual, darkly comic and morbidly fixated, but it is rooted just as much in his affection for monsters and misfits (which in his movies often turn out to be the same thing). He all but invented the vocabulary of the modern superhero movie (with Batman), brought new vitality to stop-motion animation (with Corpse Bride, directed with Mike Johnson, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, which Mr. Burton produced) and has come to be associated, for better or worse, with anything that is ghoulish or ghastly without being inaccessible. He may be the most widely embraced loner in contemporary cinema.”
Last night in Austin, Burton recalled growing up with a pet dog that, inflicted with canine distemper, hung on the verge of death for years. Movieline‘s Jen Yamato: “Years later as a young employee of Disney, Burton channeled that childhood experience into a live-action short starring Barret Oliver, Shelley Duval, and Daniel Stern; the resulting film, a black-and-white cult classic, got him fired from the studio, who insisted it was too scary for children. How did Burton walk that line in the feature-length version of Frankenweenie, a second go-round with Disney? He didn’t. ‘I remember when we first did the short and they were going, “This is too weird,” and then they showed Pinocchio and kids were running out screaming in the theater,’ he recalled. ‘Disney founded its company on having things that were scary and I think people forget that. To me, this was really safe. I never was worried about it because they’re little puppets, for God’s sake.’”
Now, with the feature-length Frankenweenie, “Burton’s directing career comes full circle,” writes Tim Grierson for Screen. The story follows “the exploits of a brokenhearted boy who decides to bring his beloved dog back from the dead. And as befitting a film that pays homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tale, this stop-motion effort feels constructed out of bits and pieces, stitching Burton’s pet obsessions together with different tones and genres to create a work that’s diverting fun in fits and starts but can’t quite achieve a coherent whole.”
“As demonstrated by Corpse Bride and the Henry Selick-directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, stop-motion is an ideal medium for realizing Burton’s unique worlds of whimsy,” finds Variety‘s Justin Chang. “The labor-intensive nature of the process, which in this case involved about 33 animators working to produce five seconds of film per week apiece, imposes a necessary degree of focus and pre-planning in the story department—a useful constraint for a filmmaker whose visual imagination sometimes overwhelms his narrative sense.” Screenwriter John August “brings to the material the same earnest, accessible strokes apparent in his previous collaborations with Burton (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride), signaled by the emotional flurries in Danny Elfman’s score.”
“Burton’s id explodes onto the screen with a plethora of demonic mutated critters ranging from naughty giant sea monkeys straight out of Gremlins to a towering reptile that pays blatant homage to Godzilla,” writes indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn. “Each contributes to the impression of a magical playtime stemming from Burton’s uniquely grim toy chest.”
“But while they cackle and stomp and make funny faces as they invade a festival celebration on Main Street,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter, “these beasts, working under a PG imperative, don’t actually do anything particularly untoward, which is consistent with the toothless, not to mention second-hand, feeling of the entire enterprise…. It all feels pretty rote and empty, drained of the old Burtonjuice.”
For FirstShowing‘s Jeremy Kirk, who gives Frankenweenie a ranking of 7 out of 10, “Martin Landau voicing the [Vincent] Price-looking science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, needs to be mentioned,” which brings us to Ed Wood, “perhaps the most loving portrait of a filmmaker ever put on screen,” as Sean Axmaker puts it, reviewing the new Blu-ray release from Touchstone. “Martin Landau’s Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi in his declining, morphine-addict years, is compassionate and moving.” At Movies.com, Peter Martin notes that Landau, now 84, was in Austin last night and, on his way to the Q&A, “took a tumble, but quickly recovered and was soon joking with director Tim Burton that he was now available to do ‘pratfalls’ in future films.”
Updates, 9/23: We haven’t had a real sketch of the plot yet, so here’s one, courtesy of William Goss at Film.com (where he gives the film a B): “The Frankensteins’ young son, Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), is an fledgling inventor who seriously adores his dog, Sparky. Mr. Frankenstein wants Victor to broaden his interests, though, and try out for sports, and his first baseball game sadly results in Sparky’s running into the street after a fly ball and being struck by a car. The boy is despondent until his intense science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), suggests that a body could be brought back to life with an electrical surge. Once Sparky is resuscitated, Victor tries—and fails—to keep him a secret, setting off a chain reaction of classmates resurrecting their own dead pets to calamitous effect.”
“While anybody familiar with James Whale’s classic Universal monster movies, specifically Frankenstein and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, can track Burton’s loving homage almost beat for beat,” writes James Marsh at Twitch, “Frankenweenie works best when expanding its universe and referencing the horror genre more broadly. Victor’s classmates are a veritable rogues’ gallery of ghoulish tweens who resemble Frankenstein’s hunchback Fritz, Cesare the gangly somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a wide-eyed blonde with a supposedly psychic cat, and then there’s Elsa Van Helsing, the girl-next-door voiced by Winona Ryder, with an Elsa Lanchester poodle. Not only are these oddball students the source of many of the film’s laughs, but when following Victor’s example to re-animate their own deceased pets, it leads to an epic, monster-fuelled finale that proves the film’s highlight. All that said, Frankenweenie is only superficially entertaining, with the themes at the film’s center—acceptance, loyalty, self-belief and friendship—lacking any emotional resonance.”
“The stop-motion animation is meticulous, and the puppets and sets fill the frame in ways that are often visually stunning,” writes John Gholson at Movies.com. “The tone is gently humorous, with touches of little kid gross-out humor building to a big action-packed finale, so it works well enough as a left-of-center family movie. And, after decades of work, that’s all Burton really seems interested in making—visually weird family films. As fans, we keep waiting on projects from him that are really hilarious or really scary or really any of the flavors that he peppers his films with, but the truth seems to be that Burton, aware that his weirdness might be a turn-off to some, softballs those elements straight down the middle.”
Update, 9/30: For Nick Schager, writing at Slant, “this boisterous but disposable riff on Frankenstein merely reconfirms the impression that the director is now coasting on the ghoulish scary-funny style that’s become his trademark.”
Updates, 10/5: “Sometimes, when a director becomes a brand, familiarity breeds contempt,” writes the Philadelphia Weekly‘s Sean Burns. “After Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I never wanted to see a Tim Burton movie again. After Alice in Wonderland, I never wanted to see a movie again, period. But Burton showed surprising signs of life this past summer with his unfairly dismissed Dark Shadows, a sly goth soap opera in which the comically convoluted source material complemented Burton’s notorious inability to remain interested in storylines for more than 20 minutes at a time.” Burns has quite a list aspects he does not like about the new one: “And yet, I could look at Frankenweenie for hours.”
More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 4/4), Richard Corliss (Time), A.A. Dowd (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Robert Horton (Herald), Inkoo Kang (Movieline, 8.5/10), Chris Packham (Voice), Tasha Robinson (AV Club, C), A.O. Scott (NYT), Bill Stamets (Newcity Film), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 3/5), Forrest Wickman (Slate), and Stephanie Zacharek (Film.com).
Blogging for the LA Weekly, Liz Ohanesian has pix from the exhibition The Art of Frankenweenie and notes from a panel featuring the filmmakers. And Peter Hall talks with screenwriter John August for Movies.com.
Update, 10/7: Tim Adams profiles Burton for the Observer.
Update, 10/8: And here’s the original 30-minute 1984 version:
Update, 10/10: “Perhaps,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “Frankenweenie the lovable undead pooch is a comment on our perennial regressive desire to remain kids, and it touches, glancingly, on the idea that we are most daring and brilliantly creative in our earliest youth, before buttoned-up adulthood constrains us. At all events, it’s a likable film, though not a sensational development in Tim Burton’s career.”
Update, 10/12: “Here, at last, is a Tim Burton picture with a personal touch,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin.
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