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…
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from October 10th-21st at selected venues. Go to http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff for booking and further information. Lateness, talking and phone use are strictly prohibited. No, really.