by Steve Habrat
In the wake of his stellar 2007 musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton churned out two horribly inconsistent remakes that were typical exercises in pricey style over script substance. Alice in Wonderland found Disney filling each frame with sugary 3D effects and sprawling CGI landscapes that looked like it was inspired by Burton rather than actually crafted by him. The film was a disaster but I pointed my blame more at Disney than Burton. This summer’s Dark Shadows remake was another catastrophe that suggested that maybe Burton did deserve some of the blame for these movies flying wildly off their gothic tracks. Needless to say, I was a bit worried going in to Frankenweenie, the third horror-themed kiddie flick of the late summer and early fall (the other two being ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania). Well, after two massive duds, Mr. Burton is finally on the right track again and firing on all creative cylinders. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Frankenweenie ranks near the top as one of Burton’s strongest films in his vault. While some children and adults may be turned off due to the black and white presentation of the film and the morbid subject matter, Frankenweenie thrills, chills, and even tickles movie buffs with a strong affection for the classic Universal monsters, 40’s and 50’s B-movies, and Hammer horror offerings. Plus, it truly is difficult to resist a story about a boy and his undead pup.
Frankenweenie ushers us into the small town of New Holland, where we meet young outsider Victor Frankenstein (Voiced by Charlie Tahan), a lanky amateur filmmaker and brilliant scientist who adores his feisty bull terrier Sparky. Victor’s parents, Edward (Voiced by Martin Short) and Susan (Voiced by Catherine O’Hara), encourage Victor to step out of his comfort zone and join the baseball team at school. During his first game, the Frankenstein’s bring Spark to watch Victor play, but after he knocks the ball out of the park, Sparky chases after the ball and is hit by a car. Victor is devastated by the loss but his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Voiced by Martin Landau) inadvertently gives Victor the idea of using electricity to bring Spark back from the dead. Confident he can pull off the experiment, Victor rushes out to dig up his four-legged friend and reanimate him as quickly as possible. Determined to keep his experiment a secret, Victor is soon found out by fellow outsider Edgar “E” Gore (Voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who blackmails Victor into teaching him how to reanimate deceased pets for the science fair. Meanwhile, the cranky New Holland mayor, Mr. Bergermeister (Voiced by Martin Short) suspects that Victor is up to something strange in his attic laboratory. As more and more dead pets are unleashed on the town, Victor turns to his crush and next-door neighbor, Elsa van Helsing (Voiced by Winona Ryder), for help from the angry mobs who wish to send these abominations of science back to the grave.
With Burton in complete control of his vision and Disney doing very little to screw it up, he cleverly builds upon his 1984 short film of the same name. Frankenweenie is a ghoulish and cobwebbed celebration of classic monsters and dated creature features that inspired Burton as a young boy. I was consistently astonished the way that Burton works references to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon into Frankenweenie and figures out a way to make all these films flow together without stretching it. These references absolutely hilarious, that is if you are in on the jokes and have seen the movies. If the Universal monsters weren’t enough, Burton also tosses in Godzilla, Vincent Price, and Hammer’s crown jewel Horror of Dracula just to let you know he loves those movies too. You may also catch a whiff of Edward Scissorhands with the overall look of New Holland and there is even a Nightmare Before Christmas aura in the pet cemetery where the adorable Sparky is buried. Frankenweenie also dares to be a little creepy in places, which was incredibly impressive considering most straightforward horror films can’t even muster an effective jump scare.
And then we have the wonderfully voiced and illustrated characters, all who despite being made of clay and plastic, jump to life in incredible ways. I absolutely loved the loner Victor and I could relate to his sadness over the loss of a beloved pet. I had to have both of my dogs put down in the same year and it was absolutely devastating. I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug the little guy. Then we have Sparky, the playful pup who enjoys passing a ball under his backyard fence to Elsa’s poodle, Persephone. I grinned ear to ear when she sniffed Sparky’s bolts and received a shock that left two white streaks that have her looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. While the adults are all fairly straightforward (Short and O’Hara voice stereotypical concerned yet hilariously oblivious parents), the kids are the real treat. The grave and monotone Nassor (Voiced by Short) will grab laughs as he commands his mummified Colossus to crawl from its tomb (wait until you get a look a Colossus) and Weird Girl (Voiced by O’Hara) is creepy fun as she walks around bug-eyed with her cat curled up in her arms. The chunky Bob (Voiced by Robert Capron) and the scheming Toshiaki (Voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao) hilariously compete with Victor and the results are as macabre as you can imagine. Ryder is appropriately mopey as Elsa, who I wish we would have seen more of and Landau purrs through his work as Vincent Price-esque science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who appears to have just rolled out of his grave.
While it is truly depressing that Adam Sandler’s limp Hotel Transylvania beat out Frankenweenie at the box office, it was really hard to see families flocking to a film like this. This is pretty bizarre territory but I sincerely hope that this finds an afterlife on Blu-ray, which I suspect it will, especially with the Hot Topic crowd who go bonkers for Jack Skellington. Personally, I feel like Frankenweenie was more appropriate for the fall/Halloween season as it does offer more than a few creepy moments that are sure to raise the hair on your arms. For the first time in quite a while, it seems like Burton is working from the heart rather than just rolling up his sleeves for a paycheck. I never got the feeling like he was bored with the material or under pressure from the studio, which was a relief. I absolutely loved the monsters-run-amok ending and I can honestly say it was much more thrilling than anything found in Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. And then there is the overwhelming emotion that takes hold in certain places, something that many can relate to, especially if they have lost a pet. It may be a small effort but it’s a passion project that pays off. While I loved the weird and wacky ParaNorman, I think I have to go with the heartwarming Frankenweenie as the best animated film of the year.
by Steve Habrat
The first pairing between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp would become one of their most beloved collaborations in the years the duo have been working together. The 1990 gothic fairy tale Edward Scissorhands is a fragile and enchanting bedtime story that seems to come from a personal place within Burton himself. Over the years, Edward Scissorhands has climbed the classic film ranks as it seems to gain more and more popularity as the years pass and new generations are introduced to it. While a wide audience sticks by Burton’s tale, the film has really resonated with the Hot Topic goth crowd. It’s easy to see why they love the film, as it follows a soft-spoken misfit who is encouraged to mingle with conformist suburbia where he is at first viewed as an alluring oddity and then is quickly misunderstood. Edward Scissorhands also features a tender love story, one that ends in a cracked heart but also happens to be vaguely romantic in its longing. The film is also incredibly memorable for Depp’s performance as shy recluse who is inquisitive of the world around him, a world he has never ventured out to explore.
Edward Scissorhands ushers us into candy colored suburbia where we meet local Avon saleswoman Peg Boggs (Played by Dianne Wiest) who has a heart of gold. While going door to door, she makes her way up to a seemingly abandoned mansion where she stumbles upon a shy young man cowering in the shadows. It turns out that this shy young lad is Edward Scissorhands (Played by Johnny Depp), who Peg manages to coax out and interact with. She notices that his face is horribly scared and that his hands are made out of scissors. Noticing that he is alone in the dilapidated mansion, Peg encourages Edward to come home with her and to meet her family. Upon arriving, Edward meets Peg’s husband Bill (Played by Alan Arkin), her young son Kevin (Played by Robert Oliveri), and her beautiful teenage daughter Kim (Played by Winona Ryder), who Edward quickly falls in love with. Peg begins to introduce Edward to the rest of the curious neighborhood, who quickly discover his stunning artistic talents. It turns out that Edward is a master at hedge trimming and hair cutting, making him an instant hit of the neighborhood. Soon, Edward meets Kim’s boyfriend Jim (Played by Anthony Michael Hall), who refuses to warm up to Edward. Edward also finds himself being seduced by the sultry neighbor Joyce (Played by Kathy Baker), who after being rejected by the nervous Edward, accuses him of trying to rape her. The neighborhood soon grows suspicious of terrified Edward and they begin attempting to run him out of the neighborhood.
Edward Scissorhands is such a joy to watch because we get to see Edward exploring a world that he never knew existed. It’s a delight to see him interacting with a waterbed, a mirror, and whatever else he happens to come in contact with. A scene where he attempts to eat peas is a pure “awwwwe” moment. He warms your heart with his attempts to fit in with the neighborhood. He is unassuming and always has a sheepish smile for the eccentric housewives who flock around him. He is even more intriguing because he never has too much to say and he lets his twinkling eyes do most of the talking. Credit the talented Depp, who says so much with just his movement. When he cuts hair and trims hedges, his face contorts with extreme focus and confidence but when he wanders around the neighborhood, that confidence dries up and in its place is uncertainty and wonder. In my opinion, Depp makes this film the heartwarming tale that it is.
Director Burton, who is working with a script by Caroline Thompson, allows his interest in Vincent Price and classic horror films to find a place in Edward Scissorhands. Vincent Price has a cameo in the film as a lonely inventor who creates Edward but dies of a heart attack before he is able to finish Edward’s hands. When the film is wandering the halls of the mansion, Burton relentlessly tips his hat to films like 1931’s Frankenstein and the Hammer horror films that he loved as a kid. The film also happens to be about a misfit loner artist who is misunderstood by the conservative suburbia, who only seem to accept him when they are benefitting from his talent. Even the character of Edward seems to be a haven for both Burton and Depp, a misunderstood outcast who is tormented by Kim’s jock boyfriend. In many respects, the world that Edward comes from seems much more normal and disciplined unlike the circus that is suburbia. Burton twists this suburbia into a day-glo world of routine and ennui, a place where many take comfort in gossip and empty pampering, nothing that is ever truly fulfilling.
Edward Scissorhands also finds a strong supporting cast, especially Ryder as the sympathetic Kim. Kim begins to find herself hypnotized and attracted to this peculiar young man and rejecting the obnoxious jerk that mistreats her. Her performance is absolutely magnetic. Wiest shines as the kindhearted Peg who sticks by Edward until the very end, becoming a motherly figure to poor Edward. Her patience and grace are absolutely stunning. Arkin is comical in the role of a dry husband who does his very best to connect with Edward even if that connection is a weak one. A scene in which they share a drink is absolutely hilarious, especially Edward’s reaction to the alcohol. Baker as the dishonest housewife Joyce who accuses Edward of rape is a despicable individual as is Hall’s aggressive Jim, who is equally terrible to the naive Edward. The dark horse here is the briefly seen Price as the inventor that builds Edward. The few scenes in which we get to see his radiant love for Edward is the strongest part of Edward Scissorhands and the ones that hit the hardest.
Tragic and sweet, Edward Scissorhands does have a handful of dark and sinister moments that are a staple of Burton’s work. You can try to resist the film all you want but there are moments that will charm you whether you like it or not. Like any good fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands lures us back to its magical world again and again to make us feel all warm and fuzzy from it’s fish out of water story. The film proves that there was magic to be found when you pair up Burton with Depp, as it leaves us ravenous for another collaboration from the unconventional duo. Overall, Edward Scissorhands stands as one of Burton’s strongest efforts and one of Depp’s best performances to date. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to step into the wondrously gothic world and get to know Edward Scissorhands. A true marvel in every sense of the word.
Edward Scissorhands is available on Blu-ray and DVD.