Saturday, March 30, 2013

2012 Family Movie Reviews, Part I: Frankenweenie

I have a problem with crowded places, so unless it's a movie that I absolutely must see on the big screen (e.g., The Avengers (2012)), I will gladly wait until it comes out on Blu-ray before seeing it. It was only recently that I saw Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, and ParaNorman; three family films that came out in 2012 that I really wanted to watch but not enough to actually go out in public. I'll be reviewing the clever and funny Frankenstein spoof, Frankenweenie, in Part I of this series of reviews.

This is another surreal stop motion film from Tim Burton. The last one I saw, The Corpse Bride (2005), wasn't too bad, but I enjoyed Frankenweenie quite a bit more. The film is an homage to a number of classic monster movies, which could explain why I'm so fond of it. I also wonder if Disney didn't use its influence as the distributor to reign in some of Burton's oddities and give the movie a more general appeal.

Young Victor Frankenstein is an aspiring filmmaker with a knack for science. (Although Frankenweenie mostly spoofs Frankenstein (1931), it's notable that our protagonist is named after Mary Shelley's literary scientist, Victor, rather than the 1931 film's Henry.) His beloved dog, Sparky, follows him everywhere and is the star of Victor's homemade monster movies. Concerned that Victor is a bit odd, his father convinces him to take up baseball. During his first game, Victor hits a fly ball into the street. When Sparky chases after the ball, he's hit by a car and killed.

Victor is devastated by the loss of his dog and becomes inconsolable. However, his dad's statement that they would bring Sparky back if they could and his science teacher's demonstration of galvanism (i.e., the contraction of muscles by electricity and the principle that inspired Shelley to write Frankenstein), drive Victor to Tamper In God's Domain. Soon the junior mad scientist is reenacting the animation scene from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) in his attic laboratory. (I say Bride of Frankenstein rather than Frankenstein because Victor uses kites to harness the lightning.) Sparky, of course, is successfully reanimated.

Here's the point at Frankenweenie diverges from its predecessors. Although a reanimated corpse, Sparky remains Victor's beloved pet rather than becoming some sort of unstoppable terror. Since this was obvious from the trailers, I had wondered what the movie's actual conflict would be. Obviously, Victor feels like he has to hide Sparky, which proves to be wise since his parents are rather nonplussed when they eventually find out that their son has reanimated the dead. The adult Frankensteins' reaction to the undead dog causes Sparky to run away, which leads to the inevitable search. All this I expected from a Disney film involving a misunderstood pet. What I didn't expect was the science fair competition gone horribly wrong.

Despite Victor's attempts to hide Sparky, his classmate Edgar Gore (aka, "E. Gore") finds out that Sparky is not as dead as previously thought. Edgar blackmails Victor into recreating the reanimation process with a dead fish, intending to use it for his science fair entry. Although the fish is indeed brought back from the dead, there are a few unexpected side effects; specifically, the fish has become carnivorous and is invisible. Eventually, Edgar spills the secret to Toshiaki, Nassor, Bob, and a character known only as Weird Girl; students who are all eager to win the science fair. All five children attempt to reanimate their own animals (a rat, sea monkeys, a bat, a gerbil, and a turtle) with unfortunate results. Only Victor can save the town when it becomes overrun with monstrosities. And as expected, the film ends with a windmill scene.

Being a Frankenstein spoof, Frankeweenie employs a lot of obvious sight gags and jokes that even those who haven't seen Frankestein or The Bride of Frankenstein will recognize; e.g., the bolts on Sparky's neck, a hunchbacked kid named E. Gore, the Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle that the neighbor's dog gets when hit by a jolt of electricity, or Nassor's flat-topped head that resembles that of Boris Karloff's Creature. Where Burton proves that the film is truly meant for fans of classic monster movies is in the obscure homages. For example, in one scene Sparky returns to his grave site at the pet cemetery after running away from home. The longing look at the tombstone can only be a reference to what the Creature tells Dr. Pretorius deep in an abandoned tomb in The Bride of Frankenstein: "I love dead... hate living." And I can only assume that the fact that galvanism serves as the inspiration for young Victor as it did for Mary Shelley is a sly wink at the mad science enthusiasts in the audience.

The movie also has some fun with the character of Nassor. While Sparky may be the film's Creature stand-in, Nassor is a spoof of Boris Karloff in a way that only classic horror movie fans will recognize. Although most of the world remembers Karloff exclusively for his role in Frankenstein, the actor starred in a number of horror and suspense films until his death in 1969. Nassor's most obvious physical feature is his Creature-like flat head. However, his face and voice are nothing like the Monster's. In fact, his facial features and skin tone are identical to those of Boris Karloff himself, who was of Anglo-Indian descent (the Creature makeup almost completely obscured his actual face). The character even does a good imitation of Karloff's voice, which doesn't truly come through in the Creature's stilted dialog in The Bride of Frankenstein. Nassor is given to melodrama, which is reminiscent of any number of roles played by Karloff. And more than once, Nassor is associated with a mummy-related sight gag. Appropriately enough, Karloff played Imhotep in The Mummy (1932) just one year after playing Frankenstein's Monster.

There are also a number of references to other films, including an attack on a phone booth that appears to have been borrowed from The Birds (1963) and some city-stomping by a Gamera analog. The most unexpected addition is a scene from Hammer Films' Horror of Dracula (1958) that is shown while Victor's parents are watching TV.

Frankenweenie is a fun movie that should appeal to most viewers, but most particularly to those who are familiar with classic horror. Not being a dog owner myself, I can't really say if it's as heartwarming as it's supposed to be, but I could certainly sympathize with the protagonist. Much of the entertainment for my family came from Victor's offbeat schoolmates and the results of their mad science. Although meant to be a family film, there are a few intense moments that may scare younger viewers. Nothing seems to bother my five year old, who loves the Jurassic Park films, but some kids under seven or eight might be scared by a few scenes.

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