Science is not good or bad, Victor
“Science is not good or bad, Victor, but it can be used both ways. That is why you must be careful.”
After the slapdash tonal tomfoolery of Dark Shadows and the soulless adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, gothic-maestro Tim Burton returns to his roots and finds the perfect ooky-kooky groove with which to re-establish his macabre mojo as one of the premier creative and imaginative forces at work in Hollywood with this expanded take on his notorious original debut short, Frankenweenie.
Having toiled away endless hours in the rat-run of the House of Mouse, endeavouring to provide Disney with talking animals and cutesy-wutesy characters with cloyingly strong moral fibre, the young Burton grew restless and sought to escape the confines of family formula. Although teased by the malevolence of The Black Cauldron (which he worked on), he didn’t listen to the resounding clunk! that Disney’s dark fable made at the box office, and when given the opportunity to helm his own project for them, he steadfastly clung to his roguish desire to bring things back from the dead and to side with the outcasts, the oddballs and the monsters. But the resulting short, 1984’s original live-action version of Frankenweenie, starring Sissy Spacek, Daniel Stern and Paul Bartel, and with Oliver Barrett as kid with the Godlike ideas, didn’t exactly bring him overnight fame and fortune. The heart-warming tale of a young boy who decides that he cannot live without his dear departed dog Sparky, so digs him up and, via lightning and laboratory, brings him back to life a la the best intentions of Mary Shelley’s pioneering fruitcake, Frankenstein, and much bizarre antics ensue in a loving homage to the chills of old Universal. But this didn’t sit well with the studio of sweetness and light, and he was helped to pack his bags and move on.
But what goes around comes around … and, much like those cadavers that obsessed boffins are always determined to reanimate, Sparky has now been given the chance to live again.
Liberated from the constraints of a throwaway budget in ways that only Burton can fully exploit, by his cherished method of stop-motion animation, the tale of teenage Victor Frankenstein and little Sparky’s rejuvenated life has been augmented by more characters and a slew of other monsters to help make the mayhem all the merrier. The basic plot is exactly the same, the rundown mutt gets zapped by the heartbroken kid and returns to the fold, and the neighbours become a philistine lynch-mob until true heroism and canine devotion eventually wins them over. But Burton knew that his earlier version, which only ran for half-an-hour, had to have more to it than that. And, as he has learned over almost thirty years of filmmaking, audiences definitely warm to his quirky attitude, his dark and wayward characters and his fixation with graveyards … and what lies, restless, beneath them.
A quaint 50’s-ish American model of dreamy suburbia is presided-over by a Dutch windmill on the spooky hill overlooking the hamlet of New Holland. Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a bit of geeky misfit, preferring Sci-Fi and technology to baseball, and his roguish dog to the antics of the other kids. His parents may be beginning to wonder how they should integrate him properly with the rest of the crowd, but Victor is perfectly happy with his little gadgets, his science projects and his four-legged best buddy. As far as he is concerned, life is pretty cool.
Until Death comes calling in the shape of a speeding car. But then things get … even cooler.
This Dutch connection, with its ominous windmill, doesn’t just enable Burton to concoct a fantastic homage to the climax of Whale’s original 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein (which he also achieved in the fiery finale of Sleepy Hollow), it gives him free-reign to allow his strange roster of supporting characters to have oddball European names and suitably sinister and displaced accents. Next door to the Frankensteins, we have the mayor, called quite brilliantly Mr. Burgomeister (Martin Short), reminding us of the backlot mobs of torch-bearing villagers and their outspoken, blinkered and rabble-rousing leaders of yore. Rather neatly, we have a potential foil for Victor with the Mayor’s granddaughter, provocatively monikered Elsa Van Helsing, and voiced by Burton-babe, Winona Ryder, who also gets to croon the reluctant Dutch Day anthem for a less-than enthusiastic gathering during festivities that every genre-fan knows have only been organised so that they can be disrupted by monsters.
“To you, science is magic and witchcraft because you have such small minds. I cannot make your heads bigger, but your children's heads … I can take them and crack them open. This is what I try to do, to get at their brains!”
New science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (or Mr. Rice-Crispy as I’m sure one character pronounces it) gives young Victor the idea that electricity could spark life into dead tissue … and, obviously, dead Sparky. The exquisite voice of Burton’s own Bela Lugosi, Martin Landau, curls its way through the Vincent Price-modelled visage of the eccentric tutor. He’s a great, though unfortunately underused character … and that elongated Price face is, ahem, priceless.
Burtonhas always had a fascination for the old classics of the genre. He says that they informed him in the way that fairytales and nursery rhymes informed other kids – which is pretty much how I have always felt about the creaky, but cosy chillers and creature-features boasting the likes of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Gill-Man from the Black Lagoon and all those assorted Things from other worlds. His respect for these immortal works of ghoulish art has been prevalent throughout his career, of course, which Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows can all swiftly attest to, and Frankenweenie is probably his most Universal-smothered love-letter yet. It doesn’t just riff on Whale’s celebrated double-whammy of Frankenstein and its superior follow-up Bride of Frankenstein, but it also embraces the hell-for-leather monster-mashes that followed. But you don’t have to be a devotee of these mighty trendsetters to enjoy the mood and atmosphere that is evoked. Another of Burton’s gifts is that he knows that kids instinctively get the gag. As eccentric as his methods may seem, he taps into the imagination of young minds with superlative ease. Even when grownups think that he’s dropped the ball, the kids still know exactly where he’s coming from, accepting the whimsy that sometimes turns sickly in the mouths of the more sophisticated.
The whole thing about resurrecting the dead via the tried and trusted and traditional methods (fictional, of course. I know … I’ve tried!) is that you need the elements to play a vital part. How convenient, then, that New Holland is such a curious little enclave, meteorologically speaking, as it has thunderstorms almost every night. Perfect for those immoral science projects in which harvesting the power of the heavens and playing God are essential facets. The screenplay, written John August and based on the original from Lenny Ripps, is possibly cheating just a little when it posits that the reason for this regular volatile night-time weather is down to either the old mining community that was once there, or the cemetery that the town has been built over. Shades of Poltergeist, there. But this superstition-rife mentality – all laid-down by the kids in Victor’s class and then cleverly and succinctly endorsed by the close-minded parental mob of do-gooders – dovetails very neatly and precisely into the final suggestion … that it is all down to the old windmill on the hill that somehow draws such wrathful energy down from the clouds. Burton and August are massively ambiguous about it. They give us some possible explanations but, basically, it happens. And that’s enough.
He plays with the contrast of having obsessively manicured lawns and regimented houses sitting along perfectly aligned tree-bordered lanes alongside a deliriously off-kilter pet cemetery – like a blood-drained Tellytubby Land adorned with gothic shrines – and mad, skewed, expressionist angles for Victor’s lab. Once the action starts in a third-act overrun with the resurrected, the visuals all become twisted and grimly noirish. Middle-class suburbia, the province that both he and Spielberg delight in assaulting from the inside-out, once again becomes a battlefield, both literally and in moral terms. The kids are the much maligned saviours … and, as we all know, kids are monsters, themselves.
There is a reason why Mary Shelley’s classic story about the errors of the Modern Prometheus still stands tall as possibly the greatest, and most intelligent, most continually challenging tale of terror ever told. We are forever fascinated by death, and the possibilities of beating it. What is suitably different about how Burton has fun with the concept whilst still acknowledging the dangers and moral conundrums inherent to such an ungodly act, is that Sparky is not, in any way, a monster. His attitude and personality remains exactly the same dead, as when he was alive. The fact that he is a loving and loyal dog also negates the strong psychological aspects that tortured Shelley’s and Karloff’s thinking, learning, self-aware creature. Naturally, Burton follows the venerable order of chaos and paranoia and has Sparky shunned and feared by the townsfolk, and blamed for crimes that he did not commit, but Sparky still just reacts like any frightened dog would do. He doesn’t threaten or slay anybody, he merely runs away and hides – hauntingly, he seeks out his own grave, in one of the film’s most lingering images. We always sympathise with the Monster that Frankenstein patched-together, but we can’t help shuddering and shrinking away from him at the same time. Sparky, on the other paw, is the companion we all wish we had. And this bond doesn’t alter just because he’s dead.
Love is the vital ingredient in such experiments, and the variable that must be in place for success. When Victor’s classmates discover his secret, they follow-suit in order to win the coveted first prize in the Science Fair. But their resurrections are performed out of greed and pride, and they neglect the love that ensured Sparky was just the same animal after his post-grave breakfast of electricity. Thus, their creations are anything but friendly … and New Holland soon trembles with fear.
After the mixed-up mess of Dark Shadows and the resolutely gloomy Alice, Burton steers Frankenweenie with a sure hand, which is all the more commendable when you consider that he was making this and Shadows at the same time, commuting from set to the other. Luckily, both were lensed in England. I am impressed by how much we learn in the first three minutes of the film. Burton establishes the Frankenstein family, their personalities, foibles and concerns with blissful and entertaining economy, swiftly revealing Victor’s love for Sparky and his passion for science and creativity, and, in a magisterial dissolve, the prime setting for the entire story that will unfold. It all goes by in the blink of an eye, but he has delivered so much in that time. Burton is also a master chef when it comes to the blending of comedy, pathos and suspense. And let’s not forget that he is perfectly happy informing kids that it’s okay to dig up their dead pets and/or loved ones if they are just intending to bring them back to life because they miss them. Ahhh, bless.
Coming from such an esteemed genre-guru, the Universal and Hammer riffs are all well and good and only to be expected, but there are also some very conscious and welcome nods to the glorious city-stomping of Godzilla and the more satanic verve of Ray Harryhausen’s horrific harpies adding some spice to the bubbling cauldron. When a squadron of those comic-book advertisement staples, the (in reality) ever-disappointing Sea-Monkeys, are given the lightning-treatment and attack the town, the delinquent wrecking-spree of Joe Dante’s Gremlins is recalled, as is Hitchcock’s The Birds, when a phone-booth becomes a very flimsy sanctuary. A cheeky little stab at JurassicPark seals the deal, of course. You’ll know it when you see it. I always loved the swordfish-snouted werewolf from The Nightmare Before Christmas and he is somewhat recalled when a dead rat is transmogrified into a toothy, man-sized monstrosity. And, when it comes to scary bits, there is one protracted transformation from cute to k-k-kuh-rayzeee that may have the littlest members of the audience seeking parental shelter, and giving the family cat a wide berth for a while afterwards.
“I … knowww.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, I think you know what I know I know.”
You following this okay?
It is downright impossible not to be impressed by the skill and patience of the animators, who may work all day long to get just two seconds’ worth of footage in the can. Filmed in an East London studio, the puppets, themselves, were actually made in Cheshire, and fabulous creations they are too.
It is true that the characters only seem to have one expression apiece, but this doesn’t really matter when that expression is so brilliantly designed. Weird Girl (Catherine O’ Hara) and her portentous cat, Mr. Whiskers, share the same ghastly rictus-visage – huge saucer-eyes with miniscule black dot irises travelling across them like small moons in orbit around a vast planet – whilst the tall Nasser (Martin Short, again) has a Karloff-inspired flat-top, and the squat Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) sports a look that seems to combine elements of the devious Fu Manchu with Bela Lugosi. There’s a regulation fat-kid, of course, but the most obvious caricature is clearly that of Edgar E. Gore (Egor, yeah?), voiced with slobbery relish by Atticus Shaffer, who is the malformed love-child of Dwight Frye and Peter Lorre. Check out how one spidery hand is actually much longer than the other one – the oddly delicate fingers horribly unnerving and ever furling and unfurling with icky intent. You don’t really want to know where he’s been rooting-about. It is only Wimpy Kid’s Robert Capron as the tubby Bob who isn’t strictly from the Burton Boutique of the Bizarre, being devoutly normal when compared to this absurd bunch, although a sure-fire target had they been less strange.
Without a doubt, it is Sparky, himself, who gets the best treatment and gives the finest performance. There have been packs of dogs in cell-drawn animation, CG renderings and stop-motion, but I sincerely doubt that there has been one that has employed such a convincing range of faithful doggyisms and sounds as this lightning-juiced canine. Ever-smiling with unconditional love and bursting with frivolous energy this dead-dog is a bundle of existential excitability. Look at the way he reacts when his ball comes back through the fence (nudged by his soon-to-be paramour, Elsa Van Helsing’s poodle Persephone) – with a double-take, a panting grin, a little hop and a playful yip. This is exactly how dogs move and act – all jittery spontaneity. Naturally, once Victor has dug him up and stitched his car-crushed body back together, bits have a tendency to drop off, gobbled flies can wriggle their way out of his loose threads, and gulped water sprays like a lawn-sprinkler from his welded joints. But this attention to behavioural detail, even in a stop-motion whimsy such as this, is never skimped-on. The perpetual look of earnest, eager-to-please affection is genuinely captivating. And quite brilliantly, his yips, grrrs and woofs are purloined from the ever-waggling tonsils of regular Scooby-Doo vowel-yowler, Frank Welker … so this loveable canine-cadaver has a finely putrid pedigree.
“If we could bring him back, we would.”
Although there will surely be a tear in your eye, Burton avoids much maudlin, wrapping up the tragedy of Sparky’s initial demise in a stunning display of canine prowess and instinctive valour with the acutely fateful coin-toss of pure bad timing. When his father, voiced by rent-a-gob Martin Short once more, tries to involve his nerdy son into the rites-of-passage that is baseball, Victor finally astounds everyone by sending the ball high into the sky … but before he can savour his first home-run, the ever-chancing Sparky tears off after it across the road. I know that many of us have been there at that horrific moment for real, but Burton spares us much of that sweet agony with a small but reflective montage of tearful aftermath … and, before you know it, Victor has seized-upon the possibility of cheating death and commenced his own quest for scientific and emotional eureka. This undulation from the bittersweet to the eerie to the rib-tickling is unique to Burton’s eccentric sense of narrative. His darker tendencies wryly masked by a veil of imaginative naïveté that sees optimism in the more brooding shadows of the netherworld. Both Clive Barker and Tim Burton are obsessed with opening fantastical doors, and both certainly have sympathy for the Devil. But are also fascinated by fable and myth. But it is Burton who manages to see both sides of what lies beyond the void – the darkness and the light, and is able, therefore, to treat them as pretty much the same. In Barker’s hands, Sparky would be angst-ridden at being brought back, and he would fight to return to the land of the monsters and the dead. It occurs to me that Burton seeks to leave that doorway open, to allow constant to-ings and fro-ings, savouring the duality that it creates. To wit, his gothic take on Batman.
The attic laboratory is a pure delight. You’d have to wonder just how his parents cosied-up downstairs on the couch and watching Christopher Lee in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula (in black and white, although I think a splash of alarming juxtaposed colour would have worked well here) don’t hear all his crashing-about and his gadgets working overtime to catch the lightning – I mean those neat suburban dwellings are really small from the outside, so just where is this lab secreted? But the low-tech improvised equipment that Victor has rigged-up – a toaster, an old television set, a clock, batteries in a fish-tank, fairy-lights, the wheels of bicycle etc – are a brilliant take on the original “working” props designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for James Whale’s classic. Plus, the rebirth sequence is thoroughly exciting, and both touching and witty. The reversal of Shelley’s culture-shock myth is also a splendid 180-degree turn. The mad scientist, and almost all of his cinematic evolutions and copycats, has tended to shun his creation in abject horror … but, with an adorable lick on the hand and a jaunty wag of the tail, our Victor has brought his soul-mate back and he simply couldn’t be happier.
There are some slight missteps along the way. I can’t quite fathom the relevance of Mr. Whiskers’ little dream-premonitions that are made manifest to the appropriate person by the deposit of a spindly cat-poo in the shape of the first letter of their name. Even by the famously loopy imaginings of Burton, this seems like a bum-note. The departure of Landau’s science teacher so early on seems to rob the plot of someone who had appeared to be much more important than he eventually turned out to be. There is metaphor made about American apathy and distrust towards free-thinking, as well as the analogy about immigrants seeking the land of opportunity much like electrons seeking the earth during a thunderstorm, but much of this is lost because Burton and August don’t really know where to take any of it, and such ideas fall by the wayside. And the song that poor Winona Ryder’s Elsa is forced to sing on Dutch Day is so bad that it goes beyond being amusingly naff to being … just plain naff. The burgeoning relationship between her and Victor is also left hanging, with this happening more-by-proxy between Sparky and her dog, Persephone.
It is also worth mentioning that we are never quite sure about the motivations and the attitudes of the other kids, most notably Nasser and Toshiaki, who both have the potential to be borderline bullies, yet are far too understanding and docile. And,um, polite. A warped favourite is O’ Hara’s fright-faced Weird Girl, yet you have to wonder just why anybody else would ever associate with her with in the first place, let alone allow her into the clique. Burton champions the freak in any scenario, yet in this one the kids are practically all freaks of one sort or another. I mean, just how old is Nasser supposed to be? He looks and sounds like a middle-aged man. Sometimes it seems as though Burton has merely used them as ensemble padding instead of actual characters in this madcap power-play. I like them all, I should point out, but I can see how some people can find their respective arcs a little inconclusive.
Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Steven Spielberg and John Williams are some of the most renowned filmmaker/composer relationships in the history of the medium. But the most comprehensive, by far, is that of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Collaborating since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and now, with Frankenweenie, claiming fourteen productions together, the two saccharine Gothites have established an immediately recognisable vogue for the culture-clash of sentimental whimsy and profoundly robust symphonia in the one often triumphant, but always eclectic score. Elfman, like Williams, is guilty of sounding very similar from one project to the next, his gooey choir, gentle melodies and spectral finesse immediately recognisable, and it is virtually inconceivable that he would be able to knock it out of the park with each successive venture. Certainly, his scores for Burton’s Planet of the Apes (which was a mistake for all those involved with it, save the makeup-FX crew), Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were subpar deviations from his normal musical sensibility. But the combined alchemy between director and tunesmith has turned out far more magic than meandering. His Wolfman score may have lacked bite, and his Real Steel been Rocky-lite, but even if Dark Shadows was a poor movie, Elfman’s delirious music for it was fabulous, and one of the best scores of 2012. For Frankenweenie, he keeps things very simple indeed. Just a couple of heartfelt themes that can be ignited with passion, charged with comic terror and energised with all the nostalgic vigour of Universal Horror maestros Frank Skinner, Hans J. Salter and Franz Waxman, whose delightfully eerie motif for Elsa Lanchester’s Bride gets a playful nod of respect here as Elsa’s neighbouring pooch gets a shock that sizzles silver streaks through her poodle bouffant. With his speciality being the haunting poignancy and frequent tragedy revolving around the mysterious characters that spill out of Burton’s brain, it is surprising how little Elfman actually wallows in misery or melancholy. Given the death of a loyal and loving canine, he could have gone overboard and driven us all to fits of uncontrollably weeping, but his plaintiff ode to Victor’s best friend is a constantly lyrical and eloquent reward. Gentle and moving, but able to “spark” into playfulness at the drop of a hat. But to go along with this, he excels with the grandiose gothic dramatics that most other modern composers would shy away from. Listen out for the great church organ vibrating and shivering with all the insane presence of a thousand demented souls, and those scissoring strings that shriek with all the sturm and drang of a furious mountaintop tempest.
Elfman kept his stride on Dark Shadows while Burton stumbled and lost his way. For Frankenweenie, the two march proudly together, and never miss a step.
Not everybody has found Frankenweenie to their liking. British critics and fans were suitably entranced, but I’ve come across quite a few dissenters on American forums, who found it too slight and uninvolving. Well, speaking for myself and for my kids, we all adored it and, have been watching over and over for the last few days. (It helps when the package has several discs of the film on offer too. And there was even a time when I discovered that it was playing in three different rooms at once!) The original was fresh and clever, and Burton’s expansion may merely throw more oddity into the pot, but it does so with even more emotion, loving nostalgia and nightmarish fun, possibly even consciously following the old Universal ethic of sticking to the same plot, only with added monsters.
It’s great to have Burton back on form and treading such familiar phantasmagorical ground. Frankenweeie thoroughly deserved to live again, and the stop-motion wonder of the new Sparky is a rare delight.
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