For those familiar with the Alamo Drafthouse and their now 8 year old, blossoming Festival, the words Fantastic Fest conjure up all sorts of morbidly twisted imagery. It’s kind of a sick spin on the often cited Internet Rule 34, except in this case, it’s broadened to include the whole gamut of grotesqueness that one could conceivably stir up in ones own mind, and then some.
Heck, the Festival’s film guide even had to construct a giant pictographic grid of debauchery to help its attendees decipher just exactly what kind of nasty things they should expect film to film! Imagine my surprise then when I found out that this year’s Festival Opener, would be none other than Tim Burton’s newest Disney approved excursion, Frankenweenie.
As I took my seat in the auditorium, I had pretty much made up my mind that no matter what I saw on screen today, I was going to hate it. It’s a problem that I think many film fans run into at some point in their viewing careers, and although it is an extremely self-centered sort of mindset, it can be such a tough one to break. Taking a moment to breathe in my surroundings, I curiously noticed that the audience itself was quite diverse. It was an age group of moviegoers that spanned over 4 decades (more if you count Walter Matthau), and I would wager that for many of them, Tim Burton’s films created some of their fondest childhood memories, alongside such wondrous things like Pizza Day and trick or treating. So how could you not come into Frankenweenie without some sort of leftover baggage, good or bad?
I had at some point (likely around 2005) turned my fondness for this childhood hero of mine into a sort of selfish loathing. In my head I was rigorously pumping myself up by quoting lines from Liam Neeson’s speech in Taken. I was ready to go round for round with this film and tear apart limb from limb. But as the first Black & White images fluttered to life across the screen, I felt a mental shift that even Lithium couldn’t touch, and like Alice’s journey through the Looking Glass, I was transported to a world I had long forgotten existed. Once again I found myself to be a wide-eyed child, and loved it.
Frankenweenie tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a young misguided child whom in his grief over the recent death of his pet dog Sparky, turns to the world of science to help bring him back, and succeeds. Eventually, Victor’s whole student body catches wind of his scientific breakthrough, and plunge the whole town into chaos as each student tries to put their own twist on the experiment, each trying to put in a bid to win the school’s coveted Science Fair.
Children learning to deal with loss, the morality of science, and the incompetence of adults. None of these are motifs that are at all new to Burton’s film’s or even films in general, yet somehow Frankenweenie makes us forget this. Each frame is in itself picturesque, a captivating and masterfully executed demonstration in stop motion. Don’t get me wrong, the voice-over work of actors like Martin Landau (who plays a Vincent Price-ish science teacher) and Catherine O’Hara (who plays well.. everybody), are absolute highlights. But one could conceivably mute the audio and still be just as entranced by simply staring at the visuals. Even the snottiest of film snobs will, if even for second, to gawk and marvel at the imagery.
In many ways Frankenweenie is a return to roots for both Burton and his fans. The film itself is a rehashing of Burton’s 1984 live action short of the same name, yet this time, he finally gets to redo it in the medium he feels it’s was meant for. There is something very Frankenstein-esque about the way stop motion brings the inanimate to life, and like a wacky haired Gepetto, Burton seems to actually pour all his heart into his inanimate creations and infuses them with the spark of life. This love, this personal connection, is something that I feel we haven’t seen from Burton’s film’s since Big Fish released nearly a decade ago. It is this almost biographical sentiment that made me first fall in love with his film’s in the first place, and is one of the main reasons I loved Frankenweenie.
With this film, Burton strips himself of many of the bombastic clichés that have become staples in his career. He ditches his usual over-saturated, retinal orgasm inducing color schemes, and instead chooses to give the film a black and white sheen, making sure that everything from puppets to set pieces were constructed in grey scale.
We still have the sort of quirky and sometimes questionably child-friendly dialogue and happenings that we all come to expect of him, yet this time we don’t have to deal with Johnny Depp prancing around in whatever schizophrenic typecast he’s come up with this week. Even Danny Elfman’s score is surprisingly barely recognizable, as it for once steers away from its usual over the top hodgepodge of tuba riffs and xylophones. It’s almost like we’ve been transported back in time and seeing a young 1982 Burton whose just pumped to have gotten Vincent made and has perhaps only sold just a few shreds of his soul to a devil dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume. All of which is fitting considering Time Travel is the theme of this year’s Fantastic Fest’s bumper lineup.
To enjoy this film you must cast aside any preconceived notions you may have as to what a “Tim Burton Film” is supposed to be. Forget about ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the Hot Topic generation, and countless bad relationships, and Bright Eyes songs that this man spawned by making being a tortured teen artist attractive to scores of underage women who just want to “fix things”. Check your baggage at the door, and you will undoubtedly enjoy yourself. If you can’t, well technically this is a kids movie anyway and all of our long-winded film critiques and sociological debates really have no place here anyway. We’ve had our childhood, and now it’s time to either sit back and let the ones around us have theirs.