56th BFI London Film Festival Review – Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie, 2012.

Directed by Tim Burton.
Featuring the voice talents of Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Robert Capron, Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, Martin Short, Conchata Ferrell, Catherine O’Hara, Tom Kenny and Atticus Shaffer.

SYNOPSIS:

A young scientist conducts an experiment to bring his beloved dog back to life, only to find himself facing up to unintended – and sometimes monstrous – consequences.


Tim Burton is a filmmaker who seems to dip in and out of public acceptance. On the one day he is praised for his iconic films such as Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Batman. The next day he is mocked and ridiculed for his reliance on Johnny Depp and wife Helena Bonham-Carter in films such as Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland. I am happy to report that Frankenweenie falls into the former camp – and could be one of my favourite Tim Burton films.

Using the voice talents of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Martin Short and Winona Ryder, Frankenweenie tells the story of a school-boy named Victor (Charlie Tahan), who aspires to be a filmmaker himself. In true Burton fashion, he is socially awkward and has few friends – instead, relying on his dog Sparky to provide company. Shortly into the film, Sparky dies and Victor – inspired by his strange teacher – manages to bring Sparky back to life, much to the shock of his friends and family.

Frankenweenie is a Disney film and, with this in mind, becomes a unique specimen when placing it within the Disney animated canon. A black-and-white film about death is hardly Snow White. Indeed, the film is a remake of a 30-minute film Burton made in 1984 and, viewers of animated TV series Family Dog (a Brad Bird creation, executive-produced by Burton in 1993) may notice a surprising similarity with the lead characters. This is a tale which has been close to Burton’s heart for decades and you can see how his love for cinema bursts off the screen in 3D.

From the opening sequence, it feels as if something is referenced. The Toy Story sequence that begins the film appears more as nostalgia rather than imitation. The joy of cinema and fun of filmmaking is celebrated throughout – live-action Dracula plays on the TV in Victor’s household, Bambi (another Disney film very much about death and moving on) plays at the local cinema. Godzilla, Jurassic Park and Gremlins all feel as if they are acknowledged in the final act.

This is a story about filmmaking and, as you hear the clicking and winding of a film reel, you realise that the death of the dog represents the death of film itself, in a digital age. In this regard, the film joins Scorsese’s Hugo, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist as it harks and weeps for what cinema used to be. Victor edits the film by cutting and sticking shots together, not using an Apple iMac. The world is a balance between Gothic and Suburban – and Edward Scissorhands himself could easily live in the same area. Burton has made a film in Disney Digital 3D mourning the loss of traditional filmmaking. Then again, as a character says “I’d welcome death”, maybe he is celebrating the death of film and praising the future of a new medium.

The film is not without it’s faults as Danny Elfman’s score seems to echo many themes and riffs from his score for Batman and Batman Returns. In addition, buried deep in the film, is an argument regarding the challenge between faith and belief against the cold, mechanical research required of a scientist. Victor is a scientist at heart – but he loves his dog so much that literally brings him back to life. I would like to believe that multiple viewings may flesh out this potentially profound element to the film – but it could be the case that there is simply inconsistency in a theme that is weakly explored.

I strongly recommend this film as it truly does show Burton at his best. Filmmakers and film fans should all be exceptionally satisfied as Burton seems to be in his element combining his artistry and knowledge of cinema to create a film that, I believe, will not be forgotten. As an opener to the London Film Festival it is richly deserved – and I can only wait with baited breath to see whether Burton can continue this success with another fine film in the future. Mr Burton – my faith in you has been restored.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Simon Columb

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