Tim Burton endeared himself to morbid goth teenagers forever when, in 1993, he put his name to The Nightmare Before Christmas. He didn’t actually direct it (the marvellous Henry Selick did), he only devised the characters and plot, but it was enough for him to be elevated to hero-status for pale, dark-clothed Korn fans around the world; Nightmare continues to enjoy a line of lucrative merchandising to this day. Burton needs to ready himself once more for a generation of adoring fans wearing black lipstick and studded bracelets as his latest, Frankenweenie, is sure to appeal to the same crowd, featuring as it does spindly weirdo characters that wouldn’t look out of place in Halloweentown, and tapping into themes of death and the macabre. It even features a school kid known only as Weird Girl.
Victor Frankenstein’s only friend is his ugly dog Sparky, and they spend all their time together in Victor’s attic making amateur horror films and doing science experiments. He is the weird loner of so many Burton films, the clever guy who is ostracised for being too inquisitive. Only in the world of Frankenweenie everyone is a weird outsider, from the Eastern European teacher Mr Rzykruski (voiced to great effect by Martin Landau) to the hunchbacked outcast Edgar. It’s a town full of misfits, and one senses that Burton has put a lot of himself into some of these characters, especially Victor, who we first see editing a home-made film. The plot kicks off when, during a father-enforced baseball match, Sparky gets hit by a car and dies. Victor is devastated, but having been inspired by Rzykruski he brings his dog back to life. However, reanimated canines are quite difficult to keep quiet about, especially in the small community Victor lives in.
Shot in crisp black and white, and packed with references to old school horror (a turtle, brilliantly, is called Shelley), Frankenweenie is closest in tone to Burton’s classiest film Ed Wood: it’s rooted in film lore; wears its influences on its sleeve; and is clearly made with great love and care. The fact that it is done in stop-motion, that most infamously time consuming of mediums, further adds to the commitment on display here. This feels, for the first time in years, as though Burton actually cares about the film he is making (unsurprising, given how this is a remake of his early short film of the same name that got him fired by Disney). When his last few films have almost felt as though Burton is parodying himself, it’s refreshing to see something that is clearly close to his heart and that demands time and effort.
It’s a shame, then, that the film doesn’t entirely work. Sparky is an incredible creation: never anthropomorphised, he moves and sounds exactly like a dog should. Despite being a hugely unattractive dog, it is easy to see why Victor loves him so much; the heart and soul of the film undoubtedly belongs to Sparky. But the humans fail to match the brilliance of the dog at the centre of it all; their designs are all a little forced, so noticeably WEIRD and DIFFERENT that they don’t really register as real characters at all. They are all either stick thin and pointy or obese to the point of ridiculousness, but that seems to be the only flair that has gone into the character design. Nothing really registers beyond the fact that everyone is a bit odd. The voice acting is somewhat lacking, too. Catherine O’Hara‘s Weird Girl is the hilarious exception, but, crucially, Victor himself is a dull, uninteresting presence, Charlie Tahan‘s voicework being almost irredeemably flat. His friend Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) is just exceptionally annoying.
Similarly, the world they inhabit has little to remark about other than the fact it’s shot in monochrome. New Holland is familiar Burton territory – neatly ordered suburbia hiding bizarro personalities behind the whitewashed walls. As such, it all feels a little passé, and, criminally, a little boring. The result is a concoction of weirdness that fails to truly register on the levels it is aiming for. There needs to be more to a film’s aesthetic other than ‘quirky’ for it to make an impact, and Frankenweenie fails to do that. The action feels stilted, and the plot rather dry, when placed in this world that never really comes to life. Not only that but a mid-film scene shoved in there to criticise the anti-science right wing in America feels uncomfortably preachy, making for a tonal shift that rings false. The final act, thankfully revolving around the ever excellent Sparky, shows the heart that could have been there, but everything that precedes it always feels one beat short of a good rhythm.
Frankenweenie is oddly flat and not nearly as all out entertaining as that other stop-motion horror homage Paranorman; the human characters are rather one note, and the shifts in tone don’t quite work. But a moody atmosphere, some decent jokes and an amazing dog at the centre mean that not only is this Burton’s best film since Big Fish, it’s also going to attract a legion of hardcore fans who will wear oversized Sparky t-shirts and backpacks in the shape of Weird Girl’s head.
Autumn 2012 in cinema is notable for an apparent effort in the big animated releases to scare kids senseless. Some of the biggest upcoming animated films look to set to give children across the nation nightmares, with plots rooted in horror, and styles clearly influenced by the genre greats. This isn’t especially new for animation – think back to the deeply unnerving sight of Coraline’s Other Mother going full-on evil, or the inventive scares of Monster House, and you can see that the medium is well suited to terror. Disney have long been in on this, too, with many a childhood scarred by Sleeping Beauty’s unforgettable villain Maleficent, or the truly haunting scene of Snow White running away to the woods.
So horror in animation is almost as old as animation itself. What is new with this current clutch is that they are all arriving at once. In the space of the next few months, Paranorman, about a zombie invasion, Frankenweenie, the story of a boy and his reanimated dog, and Hotel Transylvania, in which Dracula runs a retreat for classic horror figures, will all hit cinema screens round the country, and all of which feature the undead in some way. The only other big name animation coming out during this time is Madagascar 3, which is, hopefully, vampire and zombie free. So why the current move towards a genre that, more often than not, is not targeted at children? And will any of them be any good?
The answer to the second question is, of course, impossible to say until we’ve seen them, but the signs are good. Laika, the studio behind Paranorman, have excellent form in stop-motion terror, as their last film, Coraline, proved to be both beautifully animated and wonderfully imaginative. It was also a creepy, sometimes downright terrifying work of cinema, and if they can maintain all these elements for Paranorman, then we should have a treat on our hands. The one worry is that Henry Selick, the director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, is not involved with this one, but the signs are still good and you can scare yourself silly when it comes out on September 14th.
Frankenweenie also looks like it could be worth our time, as this is going for a resolutely old school approach. Homaging the classic James Whale Frankenstein films of the 30s, the black and white, bolts-in-the-neck aesthetic display director Tim Burton‘s love of classic horror. I’ve sadly not seen the original short that Burton did before his career in feature films, but anything that sees him going back to his roots as a director, before he became an indulgent self-parody, can only be a good thing. At his best, Burton is a visually impressive, constantly imaginative director. At his worst he makes messy, plotless rambles with cliché ridden visuals and phoned in Johnny Depp performances. Let’s hope that the former turned up to direct Frankenweenie.
The other film in the trio of terror, Hotel Transylvania, is a far more straightforward, studio comedy that will probably have very little horror but lots of pop culture references. Sony, the studio behind Rio, have assembled a cast that would be terrible in a live action comedy – Adam Sandler, Kevin James and David Spade don’t exactly inspire confidence – but may do well as a voice cast with a good script. Some of the gags in the trailer are pretty sharp, and director Genndy Tartakovsky has done some impressive work with the Star Wars TV series, but it remains to be seen if this will be more than a run of the mill comedy.
As to that first question – why all the animated horror? – there are a couple of possibilities. Studios often mimic each other, Pixar and Dreamworks in particular have a history of it (Antz vs. A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo vs. Shark’s Tale and so on), so perhaps there is some of that here. If something proves to be successful, then others will want to get a piece of the action. It could just be that Hallowe’en is coming up and studios LOVE to tie releases in with holidays (Legend of the Guardians, for instance, looks set for a nice wintry, Christmassy release). Yet maybe, just maybe, there is a desire to instil a bit of fear and backbone into a generation of kids softened by bland, threatless films and television. Whatever it is, it’s a curious trend that may just prove to be a bit too much for the younger demographic: parents may end up being very grateful for the primary colours and circus afros of Madagascar 3.