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On Wednesday 10th October, the Silver Screen Society was graciously invited to attend a press screening of the latest Walt Disney production “Frankenweenie”, directed by Tim Burton. This particular screening featured a live broadcast of the opening night of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, where we were treated to interviews and live discussions with the Director himself, the producers and the voice actors behind this uniquely beautiful and heartfelt dark animation. This brilliant introduction allowed the people involved to convey to the audience their personal endeavours towards the film we were about to see, what they hoped to have achieved and their happiness to have been involved with such a sentimental project. This allowed the audience to truly understand the depth of this film, while feeling very much a part of the prestigious festival experience.

It may seem a shock to know that Tim Burton had a career before 1993’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, and the recent pale and gaunt ‘Depp-Fests’ of the last decade. In what would seem to be an attempt to distance himself from this pattern, Burton revisits a project from his youth: “Frankenweenie”, a loving short-film homage to both Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the science fiction and monster films of his youth.  This year Burton revisits this project through the use of stop-motion animation, noir format and 3D, and what he delivers can only be described as a Halloween sugar rush for Burton fanatics.

The film follows social outcast Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who, in a tragic twist of fate loses his faithful canine companion, ‘Sparky’. Unable to handle his grief, Victor takes a school science lesson too far and resolves to bring Sparky back from the grave. Sounds like a typical Burton premise, but what sets “Frankenweenie” aside from his latest releases is the sheer personal heart of the story, which incorporates all the pressures of childhood with the delicate themes of morality and loss. While adults may think the concept inappropriate, the film handles the actuality of death in a tender way, making sure that children aren’t thrown in a bit too deep. We openly empathise with Victor’s refusal to accept the harsh lessons of life and are reminded of our own steps toward adulthood and the pets we have lost along the way.

In the setting, we already see Burton’s gothic stamp of approval, utilizing his trademark weirdness to craft wonderfully odd characters amid a fittingly ghastly 1950’s suburban enclosure for them to run amok, while utilizing characterization and plot elements from a variety of “monster movie” sources. Such characters include the Vincent Price-esque ‘Mr Rzykruski’ (Martin Landau), a brilliant yet blunt science teacher from an Eastern European country far back in the mists of time. Winona Ryder returns to the screen as the normal yet melancholic ‘Elsa Van Helsing’, the sympathetic neighbour of Victor and the prophesising ‘Weird Girl’, (Catherine O’Hara) who, with her cat ‘Mr Whiskers’ provides genuine off-beat and otherworldly laughs.

A potential problem was the audience: who is this film for? On the surface it appears as a children’s film; with the necessary themes, but is a physically dark film. Filled with stitched up, reanimated creatures and bathed in a bleak noir curtain, it doesn’t come across at some points as a completely child-friendly outing, but for those too squeamish for the traditional Halloween slasher-fests, this film is delightfully gruesome enough for the faint-hearted to enjoy. Yet during the screening, we noted that the audience were in a continuous state of laughter and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

While some may consider the ending to be rushed and silly, we may see it as a child-friendly, modernised update of the monster movie showdowns of the 1950’s What would have been nice would have been a progression of Victor’s feelings of loss and his search for a realisation of death as part of life. Despite the animation being a visual treat and adding a beautiful depth to the picture, the 3D was at times off-putting, acting as an artificial barrier was between the audience and the craftsmanship of Burton. A key disappointment lay with Elfman’s score; aside from the entirely relevant (yet entirely expected) gothic organ bursts, and Winona Ryder’s exasperated and melancholic rendition of “Hail New Holland”, the music at times failed to rise to its potential.

One could criticise “Frankenweenie” for being just more of the same, but in this instance Burton is commendably looking back over the pages of his career, to find the darkly creative, but deeply sentimental element that made his earlier works so original. Frankenweenie is not a new idea, and if you have not been completely won over by Burton’s eerie tendencies before it may not be for you. Despite this, the film is massive goodie bag, with plenty of ghoulish treats for children and well placed cinematic references to soak up. Alongside this, Burton injects a bit of humanity and charm and subsequently makes it a winning treat for fans of the horror genre but also fans of the heart-warming drama-comedy. All in all it’s a definite pleasure for a varied audience, and one that is worth pursuing.

 

Written on behalf of University of Nottingham’s Silver Screen society with thanks to Cineworld Nottingham and Disney.
by Robert Hall and Caty Hill.