Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Like a lot of cinephiles, I've fallen out of love with Tim Burton. I still go to see everything he makes, but these days it's more out of duty than expectation. Sort of like spending an entire afternoon in the dingy kitchen of an old, racist relative. Yet Burton's latest project, a stop-motion feature film version of his own well-received 1984 live-action short, wears the director's distinctive stamp more comfortably than anything else he's made in a long while. This monochrome looking animation, about a boy (called Victor Frankenstein) who brings his dead dog back to life with electricity, flaunts the Gothic horror aesthetic that has become the director's stamp is in full force. Needless to say, Danny Elfman provides the score.
There are echoes of Burton's older (and better) films throughout. Vincent's own campy attempt at filmmaking recalls 'Ed Wood', whilst the juxtaposition of Burton's self-styled oddness with clean-cut American suburbia is like something out of 'Edward Scissorhands'. Look closely and there are even possible nods to 'Mar Attacks!' and 'Batman' amongst smaller visual details. And, of course, the stop-motion form itself brings to mind 'Corpse Bride' and 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (for which he provided the story and look, though Henry Selick directed). However, as nice as it is to be reacquainted with the look and feel of why we all fell in love with his films in the first place, 'Frankenweenie' also suffers by the association.
There are moments of greatness but mostly the whole thing feels like a reasonably accurate YouTube cover version of a song you loved a decade earlier. It means well and it's certainly difficult to actively dislike, but 'Frankenweenie' is mostly just quite boring, when you delve beyond the often stunning visuals and extremely polished animation. Burton has always, often unfairly, attracted criticism for being a visual stylist with am ambivalence towards storytelling, and here that's definitely true. The characters, story - a fourth-hand take on Mary Shelley's novel (if you consider this comes via classic horror movies and Burton's earlier short) - and message (standard "listen to your heart" kids-film-by-numbers stuff) are all less than inspiring and struggle to hold interest.
Worse still, the film seems - in some vague, half-hearted way - to be trying to teach kids how to deal with grief. And yet the ending completely undermines this supposed point, with a last-minute reversal. It feels flatter still if compared to another recent stop-motion children's horror: 'ParaNorman', in which references to old films and horror tropes come out of the characters. In 'Frankenweenie' the characters don't exist outside of being hokey references to horror tropes. After seeing 'Dark Shadows' earlier this year I commented that Burton's characters now seemed like Halloween costumes first and people a distant second, and that's sadly also the case here. The frustrating thing is that the man who bought us 'Beetlejuice' is clearly still in there somewhere, but in a way that makes 'Frankenweenie' even worse than 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' or the wholly risible 'Alice in Wonderland', in that it so knowingly invites direct comparison to those glory days and without substance.
'Frankenweenie' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.