A Dead Dog
Warning: This review discusses the film’s final scene.
If Dark Shadows was Tim Burton doing Tim Burton with a parodist’s malice, Frankenweenie is the old Goth being good to himself: a sweet trip down memory lane in which the tired old dandy tries to tap into his long dormant zing by reanimating an early short.
This stop motion pastiche of James Whale and the Universal Horror stable, complete with digital decolourisation, is a light, curiously wholesome retooling of the Colin Clive creature feature, but that’s less important than what lies buried underneath the now familiar aesthetic – the comedy gothic grotesquery that made Burton’s name. This is the filmmaker trying to resurrect himself and, as if to underline how closely man and movie are synergised, the technique employed is a Frankenstein composite of Burtonesque tropes. Now be warned: this creature has no sense of mischief. It’s a benign abomination.
Animation is a magpie’s charter; a sandbox that allows postmodern storytellers to cherry pick their favourite iconography and dig up old ideas; they cynically refer to this practice as homage. Many movies are intertexual you understand, they allude to and liberally borrow from other movies, but whether you’re Francois Truffaut or the kind of child Disney has fattened on confected gloop, you surely long for a kernel of originality amongst the innumerable references, winks to camera and tributes to long dead actors. When these elements are extracted from Frankenweenie, it’s a shock to find a pedestrian story about a boy and his mutt. Disney didn’t slap Uncle Walt’s (John Han)cock on this for nothing.
Does it matter that the movie is little more than apple pie baked in a skull shaped mould? Connoisseurs of the Disney brand won’t care – sentimentality, family values, a lack of cynicism, that’s part of the deal, but might aficionados of Burton’s early work not feel cheated? After all, despite beginning his career at the house of mouse, Tim’s first version of this story got him the sack. That, surely, was the best firing he ever had. Disney wasn’t for Tim – it was Warner Bros., the director’s studio, that allowed him to flourish, yet here he is, back in the magic castle, with his former paymasters running their fingers through his dark wire bonnet. His aesthetic is bankable these days, they need not fear it anymore, yet Walt’s retinue still refer to their master’s bible when it comes to content and the verse is unambiguous – nothing dangerous, nothing immoral.
This oddball collaboration produces what Red Letter Media’s Mike Stoklasa calls “the illusion of grit”. Frankenweenie has the director’s unmistakable stamp, his familiar preoccupations – Hammer, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, monster movies – but at no point do these dark delectables sour that cornball sauce. The movie paints a grey and expressionist picture with its elongated first family, its absurdly obese antagonists, but it lacks bite; it’s like your grandmother in a wolf costume. Does a kiddy flick need to be malevolent? No, but we don’t buy tickets to a Burton movie to see Lassie, no matter how well disguised. There’s even the saccharine suggestion, from mad science teacher Mr Rzykruski, voiced by Martin Landau, that love has a tangible effect on success. You can’t imagine Whale inserting a line like that into Bride of Frankenstein.
The final scene tells the story. A depleted Franken-hound is wired up to a series of car batteries in a bid to revive him. The distraught Victor’s father orders the drivers to turn their keys and start their engines. The dog lies in the centre of a half crescent formed by the vehicles. The cynic in you, the one looking for a dark flourish, of the kind you’d hope would find favour in the Burton imagination, imagines them lurching forward by accident, squashing Sparky. No such luck. The dog awakens, the family is restored, there’s not a dry eye in the house. The mouth, however…
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But…Frankenweenie is a kids film? I don’t really get your point. Of course the film had to have a happy ending, it’s a kids film. My god, they would traumatised if it ended with a dead dog. Most of Burton’s early work isn’t aimed for kids, save Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, nor is it really appropriate for them, so it’s fine to get away with a cynical edge. The comparison kind of falls flat there.
Okay, well allow me to clarify my point. Films made for children needn’t be saccharine, nor wholesome, nor uphold family values. This is Hollywood’s fundamental misunderstanding when it comes to the tadpoles. Kids are cynical, they’re flippant, they enjoy subversive storytelling – well, the healthy minded ones anyway. The idea it isn’t appropriate for them is paternalistic crap. Disney half-understand all of this, they know there’s box office in it, hence they’ve hired Burton and given him carte blanche to remake the short they once sacked him for, but obviously that subversion must stop at the aesthetic, else it’s bad for the brand.
The one man you might have expected to get that the younguns like a bit of genuine dark humour is Tim Burton, I mean he got it once – his movies were aimed at teenagers after all, but Tim’s middle aged now, he’s forgotten how he thought when he was young, and he’s got sentimental, like a lot of middle aged directors, hence he’s long blunted whatever edge he had with ruinous sugar coating. Look what he did to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s entitled to make candy floss, you understand, as long as he’s selling it as candy floss, not dark chocolate. Sooner or later more people are going to notice that the packaging and the contents are very different.
Wait. There’s a difference between getting children into dark humor and traumatizing them. If I watched this movie the way it is when I was a kid, say seven years old or so, I would have loved it! There would have been plenty of dark humor for me, me being a child. If the movie had ended with a dead dog, I would have gone home crying, wondering why my parents let me watch this. Yeah, children do enjoy dark humor and they can be cynical, but their minds are still developing and they still need to be handled with care. Enjoy it for what it is, a kids movie, and let it remain a kids movie.
Taking about potential kiddy trauma in the context of this movie is, er, a dead end. If you’re a sensitive tot or 7 year old, the dog being killed at the end of the first act might be a psychic shock. If it isn’t, young Victor digging up its corpse and dragging it home in a sack is unlikely to mark it down as a must re-watch.
I think the movie’s ending is mawkish and silly. Having the dog stay dead at the end would have made total sense and here’s why: kids need to know that when their pets die, that’s it – they’re gone. You have to deal with it and look forward. That’s a positive message for the sprogs. Instead you have this glob of wish fulfilment. Would it not have been kinder (and more interesting) to show that Victor’s experiment had unforeseen and irreversible consequences? That you meddle with the natural order of things at your peril? Isn’t that what Frankenstein’s about?
The movie might have ended on a happy note with Victor eyeing a photo of Sparky, saying he’d miss him and the family then surprising the boy with a cute kitten or something. Life begins anew. Then Victor could have said something stupid like, “Hey Claws, how you doing? Wanna play yarn ball?” – not a replacement for Sparky you understand but a healthy successor. You’d be left with the impression that Victor would always remember Sparky but was moving on. Instead Burton leaves him with his dog’s partially decayed reanimated corpse. Were I a parent I’d be unimpressed.
Of course kids should be allowed to be kids, but the cinema can cater for all kinds, including the real ones, not just the amorphous group of generic, dimples and apple pie darlings imagined at Disney HQ.
I agree completely with Ed’s points in his last comment. I went to see this with my boyfriend and we both enjoyed the film quite a lot. As adults we liked the many references (We spotted Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Godzilla, Gremlins, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Nosferatu, The Mummy… and probably some I’ve forgotten) and the general story was fun but we were left feeling that the film and its ending were ultimately ‘teaching’ unhealthy messages.
The point at the heart of this film is that you can perform whatever unethical science experiments you want if you’re doing them for the right reasons (reanimating your pet in a decaying, decrepit form is perfectly fine because you love him!), whereas performing the same scientific experiment for less selfless reasons will lead to negative results.
What kind of message is that?!
This is actually even worse in a way than the final message, which is that you don’t have to let go; you can keep clinging to your deceased pet forever.
“I thought you said I had to let go?” Victor says to his parents just prior to the final re-animation.
“Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about,” they reply.
But sometimes, they do.