Frankenweenie (2012): Film Review

Tim Burton is ALIVE!

After the disappointing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that he produced and the underwhelming Dark Shadows, you would wonder whether Tim Burton would end this year with a third strike and send him out of the game for a good long while. But, as they say, third’s time a charm and one of my favorite filmmakers in the world has proven it. His last feature of 2012, Frankenweenie, is the winning bat.

When young Victor Frankenstein lost his dog Sparky to a car accident, he was desolate. But inspired by a lesson in science class and his own father’s words (“If we could bring him back alive, we would”), Victor came up with a way to resurrect Sparky. So he did. Then someone found out his secret and all hell – literally – broke loose. In the ensuing chaos, a love letter was born… to the people, the characters and the films that made Tim Burton the filmmaker that he is today.

It’s clearly a very personal movie. Burton made Frankenweenie as a short film for Disney back when he was a 25-year-old animator working for the company. But the project was shelved and he got depressed. So it’s sweetly ironic that he got to resurrect this project for the same studio that cancelled it. As such, it comes as no surprise that there’s a myriad of references to Burton’s old movies and the classic ones he used to watch as a child. There was everything from Edward Scissorhands to Batman, and The Mummy to Gremlins, and even Godzilla, complete with a Japanese character (a boy named Toshiaki). But instead of pastiche, the ‘borrowed’ ideas did not only create much of the film’s humor but also brought to it a thrilling and captivating sense of adventure.

While the idea is probably not refreshing (Cabin In The Woods is also a movie that was a love/hate letter to horror movies), the feeling of freshness is prevalent throughout. The reason for that is the wide-eyed innocence of the narrators, Victor and Sparky. As we follow the story from the boy and his dog’s points of view, we are taken back into our childhood. Whether you were lucky enough to own a pet when you were young or not, that special friendship with someone or something you had when you were little was evoked so powerfully in this relationship that Victor had with Sparky.

But none of this would probably work if the film hadn’t been in black and white. I couldn’t not imagine the film being as wonderful if it had been in color. It could be that we associate black and white photographs to the past and so the vision of story became more powerful that way. Or it could be that the black and white softened the morbidity of the story. Or maybe it was Burton’s way to subtly direct us to focus on the story so that we wouldn’t get distracted by the visuals. Whatever it was, this technique worked. And it worked perfectly.

Anyone tired of seeing modern-day animated movies, with all the smooth digital rendering and life-like images, would also find the animation in this movie highly attractive. As Burton said, stop motion seemed like a dead art in filmmaking. Certainly, the most successful animated movies in recent years hadn’t been done in stop motion. But Frankenweenie will give us a new appreciation for it. Even if it doesn’t help to sell tickets of the stop motion animated movies, it will at least show people that the art is, like Sparky, pretty much alive.

I cannot give this movie enough praise. It’s simply an experience to have on your own. It may have a logic-defying plot but is thoroughly heartfelt, evocative, adventurous, exhilarating, fantastical and magical: very entertaining for kids – a way to experience monsters without having to have nightmares later – but profound enough for adults to enjoy. And who knows, maybe it’ll inspire parents to understand their kids better? Because my favorite line from the movie is one that I would hold dear for the rest of my life and probably one day convey to my child.

    Victor’s dad to Victor: “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”*

And that is, really, the message that Burton seemed to be trying to tell us: sometimes being an adult is boring, so trust your inner child and just have fun. I could be wrong, of course, but heck, that’s a pretty damn good line anyway.

Frankenweenie is easily one of my favorite movies of 2012, along with – among others – The Artist, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Raid. I would recommend it to everyone. And yes, I will recommend this in 3D.

* Note: This quote is an approximation. I will correct it later with the real one from the movie.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: Film Review

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Things that go bump in Abe Lincoln’s presidency…

“I think people should know that the movie is going to be very different from the book” is what Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter scribe Seth Grahame-Smith told me during a telephone interview earlier this month in a press junket in Sydney.

Fair warning? Indeed. As it turns out, in fact, it was a very serious warning.

The title of the book – and the movie – never properly lends itself to complete credibility. Abraham Lincoln and vampires? It doesn’t even compute. Until you read the book and discover that, by closely following Abraham Lincoln’s history from his childhood until his death and inserting bloodthirsty creatures of the night at the seams, Grahame-Smith has achieved the impossible: an entertaining revisionist (and you will hear this word quite a lot if you read various reviews of the book) tale of America’s most beloved president. Straight-faced from beginning to end, Grahame-Smith painted a picture of Lincoln that suited the image of the solemn, if rather somber, of a man trying to abolish slavery and keep his nation from being torn apart by a civil war – in other words, the Lincoln we have come to know through monuments and historical records. Incredible, sensational, audacious… all of this, yes. Times ten.

But with them also comes this sense of, “Well, hell. Who’s to say that didn’t happen?” Conspiracy theories abound – one of them could be that vampires exist and they plagued Lincoln since childhood. We just didn’t know about it because Someone In The Position Of Power covered it up. Disbelief: suspended.

That is not the case, unfortunately, for the movie adaptation. There is Abraham Lincoln and there are vampires, certainly. There is an actor named Benjamin Walker who played Lincoln as an adorkable young gentleman and a serious adult and there are British actors with fangs trying to kill him. There are darkness and blood and there are small moments of levity and some romance. There are explosions and there are  ass-kicking superhero and his sidekicks.

What is NOT there, however, is the red thread that keeps it all together. That is, the history of Abraham Lincoln himself – man, husband, father, president, American icon.

Who axed the history? (Pun very much intended.) It would be hard to point fingers at the screenwriter and accuse him of ruining the book’s story – Grahame-Smith wrote the script himself. A more likely culprit is the studio. This is a summer release, after all, and ’tis never the season to carry a significant amount of weight in the story… so it would be understandable enough if they decided to erase the heavies from Lincoln’s history and substituted those with explosive set pieces that would justify the movie in 3D.

Pity, though, because for once the set pieces are not enough to work their magic on an audience that are already largely skeptical towards the movie’s premise. There’s the added worry that Lincoln, even as a famous  icon, will not even be famous enough in countries where American history is not taught in the education system for people to recognize his significance. Take that all away and what do you have? A slightly vapid tale of a man fighting vampires who is not attractive enough to give  Buffy and Angel a run for their vampire slaying money.

Thank god, then, for Benjamin Walker. A former Juilliard graduate who previously worked in Broadway (most notably playing President Andrew Jackson in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the musical), Walker’s theater chops allows him to handle his first major mainstream role rather skilfully. A deft and subtle performance, Walker’s Lincoln is a good enough first role for his mostly blank CV. If only he had a better material to sink his teeth into…

Director Timur Bekmambetov’s bombastic filmmaking style, here  strangely more reminiscent of his Russian Night Watch than the more Hollywood Wanted, feels out of place in this period piece but not so much that it wasn’t enjoyable. Forgettable once you walk out of the cinema, perhaps, but never not entertaining. For some, it would be a case of “too much, too fast”, but the relentless speed at which the film progressed would be preferable considering the alternative (hey, we could’ve been served a historical biopic that would take ages at a sedate pace to tell – much like The Conspirator starring Wanted man James McAvoy).

The scares are plenty terrifying, at least. Vampires with bad teeth that go invisible until they take a bite out of your neck? Bring them on! Vampires that invite people to banquets, only to feast on their guests later? Yes, please. In ALVH, there will be blood. Enough to make you squirm in the seats, too. With the over-romanticizing in the genre that’s been happening in  the last few years, any portrayal of vampires where they are less glittery and ‘vegetarian’, and are vile and cruel instead, would be most welcome.

For the book readers, however, there’s still one huge problem that remains. It is the lack of conviction in the storytelling that would feed the book’s detractors with further skepticism or, worse, outright vitriol. Dissent may arise, resulting in a brand new kind of civil war, albeit one that happens in the internet these days, and it will be one the film – for all its attempts at a summer box office badassery – fail to win.

THE VERDICT
An awkward execution of a very interesting premise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will not abolish doubt from the skeptics’ head with Timur Bekmambetov’s whimsical action-overload filmmaking. But as a vampire movie, it has its moments. And score one for Team Walker.

TALKING POINT
Grahame-Smith’s third novel, Unholy Night, puts a dark twist on the Nativity story. Three wise men becomes three thieving fugitives. Go figure.