Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fantastic Fest 2012 Review: FRANKENWEENIE

Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John August
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, and Martin Landau
Synopsis: A young boy loses his dog, but with his aptitude for science, he is able to bring his dog back from the dead. 

True confession: I've never had a pet. Well, that's not completely true. I've had fish before. But I've never had anything close to a four legged creature who you have to walk, bathe, feed, and pay attention to. It has been beyond my control that I've never owned a dog or cat, but I've always been an animal lover. So, even though I'm a sucker when I see a cute puppy or kitty, I can't even imagine losing your family pet.

Tim Burton's FRANKENWEENIE is a kid-friendly retelling of Frankenstein. We open in the black and white world of New Holland where all the characters take on the familiar Burton make-up aesthetic of pale faces and dark circles around their eyes. Young Victor has a beloved pet dog, Sparky, who is tragically killed. Thankfully for Victor he has an aptitude for science and pretty remarkable parents who have let him take over the attic to build and experiment. With an idea that was sparked (no pun intended) by his new, and somewhat liberal, science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, Victor is inspired to use lightening to bring his precious Sparky back to life. And it works! Mr. Rzykruski has also inspired all of his students to win the upcoming science fair, but all the students know that Victor is the best, so a select group a boys make it a point to beat him.

With stepping back into stop motion, Burton has created another visually stunning world. He also taps into his repertoire of actors for the voices. Instead of having a different person for each character, Burton utilizes his talent and has a few of his actors voice multiple characters. The stand out for me was Catherine O'Hara who voices the caring yet somewhat aloof mother of Victor and completely changes gears to voice the creepy, wide-eyed, cat loving girl who has a crush on Victor.

In terms of its themes, the film however teeters between being absolutely brilliant and wishy-washy. The main theme of relationship between a man and his pet is spot on. Even though Sparky dies pretty quick, his death is absolutely tragic. It even got me a tad bit misty eyed. As Victor is setting up his lab to bring his dog back to life, I wondered how many kids will try to do the same once they see this film. The action set piece in the final act will have classic horror fans giggling like a school girl. The film has some real and genuine laughs, and it even has some Pixar-level adult humor.

If FRANKENWEENIE would have focused just on Victor and Sparky and the implications of bringing a dog back from the dead, it would have been a solid picture. However, there's a random tangent the film goes on with Mr. Rzykruski. When the parents find out the lengths his students are going to to win the science fair, including putting themselves in danger, the parents form this mob like mentality demanding for the teacher's resignation. When this scene began, I got really excited the film was going to explore the struggles of science versus religion or the struggles of bringing new ideas to a town set in their ways. But unfortunately, this whole idea falls to the waste side. It never gets fully realized, and served the story no purpose except to give Mr. Rzykruski a chance to give Victor some DEAD POET'S SOCIETY parting wisdom.

In the end, I wish FRANKENWEENIE had been a bit braver with some of its choices. I got very frustrated with the ending, but then I realized that even if it is Tim Burton, it is first a Disney film, and therefore has to cater to family audiences. Even with its flaws, it is still very charming and has some literal laugh out loud moments.

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