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Entries in paranorman (2)

Friday
Oct052012

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton is one of those love-him-or-hate-him types of directors. Some people argue that he’s doing the same thing over and over again and his frequent collaborations with Johnny Depp are growing stale, while others argue that their dark, Gothic visuals and creepy atmosphere feel just right. I suppose I'm in the latter group. His bizarre, otherworldly imagination has managed to create some unique characters and settings that instantly stand out and I’ve always been fascinated by what he conjures up, to the point where I would live in the world of Corpse Bride or Edward Scissorhands if I could. I’ve been a Burton apologist for years, despite a few stumbles (the less said about his ill-advised 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the better), but I can’t get behind his latest, Frankenweenie, a stop motion remake of his 1984 live action short of the same name. At first glance, it looks like more of what we love (or hate) about Burton—his dark sensibilities, morbid humor and fascination with death are all prominent—but it lacks creativity and care. After ParaNorman so beautifully nailed similar material earlier this year, Frankenweenie just feels kind of lazy.

In Burton’s homage to classic monster movies, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) has no friends. His only real companion is his dog, Sparky, whom he loves dearly. He does nearly everything with him, which prompts his father (voiced by Martin Short) to convince him to take part in an extracurricular activity: baseball. While practicing one day, Victor sends a ball flying out of the park and into the road. Sparky, as most dogs would do, breaks free from his leash and goes chasing it. Unfortunately, this leads to his demise. Victor is crushed, but when he learns from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), how electricity can animate corpses, he digs up Sparky and performs an experiment. Next thing he knows, Sparky is up and about, but his resurrection ends up causing problems for the town, not the least of which come from Victor’s classmates, who see this opportunity as a way to win the upcoming school science fair.

The idea behind Frankenweenie isn’t a particularly interesting one: pay homage to classic monster movies, specifically Frankenstein, except set it in 1940’s suburbia and make it a reassembled dog instead of a person. This thin concept played out surprisingly well in 1984, mainly due to the short’s 30 minute runtime, but expanding on the concept in a meaningful way has proven to be a difficult venture. Although rough around the edges, no doubt due to Burton’s lack of directorial experience at the time, that short managed to work on a more relatable level and focused on the simple story of the love between a boy and his dog—almost like a more twisted version of Marley & Me. This animated remake tries to retain that quality, but squanders it by going over the rails in the back half of the picture. It transitions from that simple, but effective, boy and his dog tale to a monster movie amalgamation, which ups the excitement, but strips away the meaning. Unfortunately for the movie, the latter is far more important than the former.

There are a few interesting nods to past genre movies, including Sparky’s female companion, who is zapped with enough electricity to create a couple of white streaks in her hair, à la the Bride of Frankenstein, and a character named Edgar (voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who is essentially the standard “Igor” character, complete with hissing voice and hunchback, but the majority of the movie plays it too safe. For the first half of the film or so, it follows so closely to Burton’s original short that it fails to find a voice of its own, instead opting to recreate certain scenes and shots down to the letter. The original was limited due to budget and time constraints, so its occasional rough patch was understandable, but here, the sky’s the limit. With animation, what you can do is limited only to your imagination, but Frankenweenie has a surprising lack of it.

Although a pretty lackluster picture on its own, this is, of course, in comparison to August’s brilliant ParaNorman, a movie that managed to include scares, laughs, emotion, beauty and genre references—all of which Frankenweenie strives for as well—and did it in a unique and satisfying way. To top it all off, that movie had a wonderful message about tolerance and being yourself in the face of adversity. Frankenweenie tells that if someone or something they love dies, you can just bring it back to life, an irresponsible message if ever there was one. It may keep the kids in the audience happy as the credits roll, but it will ultimately create an unhealthy confusion by the very notion of death.

Few movies accessible to children have the guts to make death a central theme. This does and then squanders an opportunity to say something about it. Although the animation is solid and the black and white visuals are both striking and contextually fitting, Frankenweenie’s story and themes are a mess. It’s a blunder that worked relatively well in a more focused half hour form, but feels exhausted at 87 minutes. If not for Planet of the Apes, it would be the absolute worst thing Tim Burton has ever done. If doesn’t matter if your view of the man is positive or borderline contemptible. Frankenweenie is a horrible failure either way.

Frankenweenie receives 1/5

Friday
Aug172012

ParaNorman

Animation is too often thought of as a children’s medium, which is an unfair classification. While it does tend to skew towards them, adults can be just as thrilled, delighted, scared and amused as any young kid. This week’s ParaNorman is evidence of that and it hits all of those emotions many times. This is the first film since 2009’s underrated gem 9 that feels more mature and more alive than most other conventional animated films. Despite its PG rating, it takes many risks in its sometimes unnerving tone, frightening visuals and boundary pushing jokes (let’s just say some parents won’t be pleased by a late movie character reveal) and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is not animation for kids. This is animation for everyone.

The film follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who has a special gift: he can see and talk to the dead. The people of Blithe Hollow think he’s a freak, as they watch him walk down the street seemingly talking to the air. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife is indeed a real thing and Norman gets to watch as people journey through it. Perhaps appropriately, he’s a horror fan and stays up most nights watching scary movies on television. The walls of his rooms are lined with zombie posters, his slippers are zombie heads and his alarm clock is a tombstone with an arm sticking out of it and a big “RIP” on the front. Naturally, his odd behavior hasn’t landed him many friends, but he soon learns he’s more important than even he realized. His crazy uncle, whom he was told not to talk to and who happens to share Norman’s powers, suddenly dies. His spirit tells Norman that he must now keep an evil witch at bay. It’s approaching the 300 year anniversary since her death and he must read a book at her resting place before sundown or the dead will spring to life. Unfortunately, Norman is unsuccessful, so he’s forced to set out and correct his blunder.

ParaNorman feels like something “The Simpsons” writers would make if they went a bit darker and tried to tackle horror. It’s fearless, imaginative and incredibly clever. It has plenty of throwaway gags that are surprisingly effective if you catch them, including one billboard gag exclaiming that the local school would be hosting the “Spelling Bee next Wensday.” It’s moments like these that highlight how the filmmakers left no stone unturned. They packed as much as they could into a short 93 minute runtime and somehow pulled it off seamlessly. Gags like that are usually followed by a dramatic or scary scene, but the tone never falters. It never feels inconsistent, like they needed to pick one and stick to it. They take everything that’s great about laughing and crying and being scared and throw it together to form a magical piece of entertainment.

The fact that the animation is smooth and pretty should go without saying; it’s the film’s smarts that surprise the most. It references and spoofs a number of other horror movies, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and those classic Hammer horror films. The opening, in particular, is wonderfully reminiscent of a horror film double feature many would find playing at their local theaters back in the 70’s. It’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience that genre delivers, and it continues this admiration throughout. It creates a voice of its own with a downright wonderful story that concludes in an incredible fashion that manages to be terrifying, sad and beautiful all in one sweep, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears.

In a strange way, ParaNorman is even a bit profound, finding an odd peace in death, though it’s not quite as involving as this year’s wonderful Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, where the possibility of life after death was treated less factually, but it nevertheless remains interesting. In the movie, the characters must face their fears, so it’s only appropriate it doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, everyone’s biggest fear. By the time the end rolls around and Norman faces an enemy that is far different than what many will expect, the film has taken on a whole new meaning. ParaNorman wears many faces, both thematically and narratively, but they all combine to create something truly special.

ParaNorman receives 4.5/5