If somebody had told me 20 years ago I’d be watching a Black and White film intended for young audiences by Disney I probably wouldn’t have believe it. But this is not the first time director Tim Burton has broke the mold in the film industry, and Frankenweenie is a triumphant proof that we can still get original films made.
Frankenweenie is based in a short film made by Burton while he was a young CalArts graduate working for Disney, in a time (the 80’s) when the studio was known for films like The Fox and The Hound or Benji The Hunted. It always amuses me to think of him trying to pitch his unique ideas to the studio back then: ” I want to make a short film about a dog brought back from the dead”, or even better “What about a movie about a singing skeleton who ruins Christmas?”. The studio went for the first option, and allowed him to produce the short in live action (and to my astonishment) in Black and White. But of course, there was no place along “The Brave Little Toaster” or other films alike for it.
It was after Burton made Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for Warner Bros that Disney figured this young boy’s “out of the box” ideas were actually profitable and appealed to broader audiences. In 1990 they actually gave him a green light for the “skeleton” pitch, which would become The Nightmare Before Christmas. The film revolutionized the stop-motion animation industry, and would set the bar high for future films of its kind.
But that was almost 20 years ago. Now we are the “CGI era”, and pretty much anything we can imagine we can see on screen, which came with its ups and downs. The capabilities of this technology have been exploited to a point that we are (almost) no longer surprised or amazed by anything that appears on screen: we have “seen it all”. Good or bad, we are not the same “audience” for films anymore.
That’s why a unique film can become such a precious commodity now: it’s such a big task to tackle. And Frankenweenie is that type of film.
We have had jewels in stop-motion animation since Nightmare, thanks to its director Henry Selick (Coraline), and studios like Laika (Paranorman) or Aardman (Wallace and Gromit). But what Frankenweenie does different is that is not cautious about being “too creepy” or aiming to be “too cute” to appeal to younger audiences. This film actually made me jump out of my seat a time or too, and I absolutely loved it for it.
Burton grew up watching old horror films. And this is an incredibly loving homage to an era where it was o.k. to spook you in movies, no matter your age.
To horror fans this film is a call back after the other to nostalgia: from the characters’s design (even their names) to nods to all kind of timeless gems in the genre. The cinematography, in a glorious pristine Black and White, is reminiscent of old German Expressionism masterpieces like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
What about general audiences? Well, I really hope they give this film a chance. It’s so fun and has so much humor in it to appeal to anyone, and I enjoyed the message behind it as well.
Beautiful and heartfelt, Frankenweenie is a love letter to the horror genre and to stop motion animation. One of the beauties of this technique is how it can stand the test of time: this film can be seen years from now and still look timeless. Just take a look at The Nightmare Before Christmas (made almost 20 years ago in 1993), which I still enjoy every year for Halloween and looks as beautiful as the first time I saw it.
Who knew a film about an “undead” dog could actually be a fascinating, moving, unique piece of cinema? I guess that’s a question for a certain once young kid from Burbank, who knew how much fun it would be to watch an skeleton kidnapping Santa Claus. Since he was right.