On Wednesday, I decided to give another chance to two things that had disappointed me previously: 3D cinema and a film by Tim Burton. Mister B is one of my favourite directors but I didn’t really rate highly the movies he had released in the past seven years. It was actually one of his productions, Alice in Wonderland, which I saw in 3D and made my stomach churn. I kept readjusting my glasses but to no avail. I felt almost seasick and it gave me a headache. I was longing for a clear and smooth image and since that experience, I have stayed away from 3D films. But last week, I thought I would give a try to Frankenweenie because even though I didn’t read the synopsis, the animation looked cute and the black and white atmosphere was an appeal. Initially I wanted to see in 2D but my friend Katia wanted to watch it at the Rich Mix, a cinema in East London and at night, the showings were only in 3D. So I accepted and I don’t regret it.
First of all, the Rich Mix has a lot of charm. It’s that kind of art house cinema combined with a gig venue and gallery which I hadn’t come across in England yet. I guess it’s normal to find such a place on the land of hipsters (Shoreditch).Secondly, this time, the 3D didn’t put me off at all. I think it helped that it was a stop-motion film, because the image was not supposed to be as high definition and sharp as a normal film. No headache, no queasiness. Result!
And as for the movie in itself, I am not going to write a whole review about it, but I wanted to share with you the elements that made it superior to its predecessors in my eyes.
Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Charlie, Alice did not pull at any of my heartstrings, but as a lover of animals and especially dogs, I was particularly touched by Frankenweenie story and thought it was poetic and heart-warming. Weirdly enough, it reminded me of the feelings I felt when I watched E.T or Wall-E.
The grotesque of some of the characters and their idiosyncratic behaviours were at times hilarious. I particularly loved the scary blond girl with her equally scary fluffy cat. They looked alike with their tiny eye pupils. Their mere appearance cracked me up.
The direction was remarkable, probably smoother than Nightmare before Christmas.
I guess what really won me over is that there were so many cultural references and cross-references to Burton’s own films. It was like playing a game ‘Spot the reference’. The film buff in me jumped with excitement.
This part is going to contain a few spoilers so don’t read if you haven’t seen the film yet, but if you want to step into the screen with an eagle eye, read on, and please let me know if you’ve noticed more references. I am sure my friend Emilie, who has written her Master’s thesis on Burton’s works, will have noticed a few more allusions.
Tim’s obsession with the beautifully arranged and trimmed suburban streets, which featured in Edward Scissorhands, finds its way into the animation film. And of course, there is an outsider, a little kid with jet black hair and a pasty complexion, who does not have any friends. This is as Tim Burton was as a child himself, and a figure he has used in many of his films. Edward is the embodiment of the Outsider, and weirdly enough, Victor finds refuge and builds his laboratory in the attic, just like Edward’s shelter. There is also a reference to Edward’s cutting skills with the mayor trimming his bush in front of his house with big shears.
Burton reuses his common aesthetics of black and white (cf. the makeup and clothes in Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood…) and portraits once again characters with pale, unhealthy and lunar complexions. Victor Frankenstein – named after the inventor in the illustrious Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – looks like Johnny Depp’s previous characters, especially Edward. His neighbour, a little sullen girl, is definitely a copy of Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, Lydia, with the same kind of sad eyes and clothes. And guess what? She’s the voice of the character! She’s got that perfect jaded-full-of-angst teenage tone. In one way or another, Tim has managed to insert his cult actors in the film: Johnny, Winona, Vincent Price (whose face inspired that of the science teacher), Martin Landau (who dubbed the aforementioned teacher). Christopher Lee, who he adores, as the most famous Dracula impersonator, and who features in many of his films such as Sleepy Hollow gets a cameo on the TV screen playing in the living room of the Frankensteins.
Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice
Vincent Price who inspired the science teacher
As I explained before, Victor Frankenstein is the main character of the extremely famous 19th century gothic novel, and people often confuse Frankenstein, the creator, with his creature. The plot of Frankenweenie is inspired by that story but there are also a few original additions to it which doesn’t make it a simple remake done for the umpteenth time.
There is an allusion to the novelist on a tomb in the graveyard, Shelley, which we later find out is the name of the dead turtle of the Japanese kid. One of the classmates of Victor is actually the spitting image of Boris Karlof in his role of the creature in the 1931 film. Of course, there is the resuscitation of the dog with the machine and the lightening and the famous little screw referring to the cliché we’ve got of the creature, but there’s also a part in the film in which Boris Karloff beseeches his dead animal to “rise”, which echoes the ‘rise’ of the Emperor Palpatine when he begs Darth Vader to stand after his transformation into the armor-clad dark lord. I am certain it’s in another film, where a mad scientist creates a monster, but I cannot remember which one. If anyone could help me in the comments, I would be eternally grateful ;)
There was a sequel of Frankenstein entitled Bride of Frankenstein. The creature finally gets a partner whose electrified uprising hairdo is famous for its white streak. Victor’s dog gets closer to the neighbour’s well groomed poodle, and when their noses finally sniff each other under the fence, the electricity from Sparky runs through the poodle’s body, leaving her with the same recognisable hairstyle as the Bride of Frankenstein.
I also noticed the recurrent theme of Dutch influence that was also present in Sleepy Hollow. The village where the characters live is called New Holland. In Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane sets foot into a Dutch colony. Both places have a windmill which will play an important part in the story. In both films, characters fight on the windmill, especially holding onto the sails. The windmill catches fire and Sparky is prisoner of the flames. This is a direct reference to the ending of 1931 Frankenstein, in which the creature finds himself in the same tricky situation. Burton finally names Winona’s character “Elsa Van Helsing”, a mix between Elsa Frankenstein, the daughter of Doctor Frankenstein who appeared for the first time in the horror film The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Van Helsing, Dutch name and surname of Dracula’s nemesis and slayer.
The different windmills:
The children’s creatures are also references to famous monsters: Shelley the turtle, after being resuscitated by the Japanese kid, becomes gigantic and has a face of dragon. It starts causing havoc and chaos through the city, stomping around, destroying things on its way and scaring the living lights of the villagers. This is clearly a reference to Godzilla, the Japanese monster which first appeared in Ishirō Honda's 1954 film. The sea monkeys created by the fat kid are extremely similar to the Gremlins. They also and gorge on sugary treats and explode when they have a certain food… A massive rat roams the streets of the town, the kind of monster that feature in many horror films. A mummy hamster is supposed to be terryfing but it's actually ridiculous.
The bat that Victor uses with kites to attract lightening is an obvious nod to Burton’s Batman films. In an accidental experience, the fluffy cat ends up merging with the bat he was holding in his mouth and becomes like a gargoyle or one of those monsters you would see in children’s books for Halloween.
The last reference I can remember is more of a cultural one. One of the tombs has the epitaph “Goodbye Kitty” which reminded me of the famous David and Goliath t-shirts featuring an unfortunate cat which always ends up being killed, either by falling into a blender, being stuck in a microwave etc. I giggled when I saw the inscription in the graveyard!
Before I wrap up this article, I just wanted to mention Danny Elfman’s score. In itself, it makes references to the music of Burton’s other films. Obviously, since Danny Elfman created all his soundtracks! The angel-like voices and little bells evoke Edward Scissorhands’ main titles and Ice Dance, the music during the scary moments echoes the strident strings in Batman. Even ‘A premonition’, one of the tracks has a sound which is similar to the alien-like notes in the Mars Attack soundtrack. The thing is with Danny Elfman is that he is an immensely talented composer but it seems that his scores are all the same. His style is instantly recognisable and very pleasant indeed, a bit like Rachel Portman (and they have both made several of my favourite scores) but I guess Hanz Zimmer is more gifted as he produced eclectic tracks depending on the films and I find it hard to put his name on a score whereas I quickly find out with D.E, R.P, or even Thomas Newman.
Tim Burton pays homage to the cult horror films of his childhood, to illustrious monsters and to his own films. If you have spotted any other reference, please leave a comment! I would love to share that game with you and to be enlightened by other film buffs! Moreover, the story and the animations have melt my heart. The whole time I was watching the movie, Sparky reminded me of Gino, my friend Litzie’s dog, and it made me dog-broody again. This is an adorable collaboration between the Master of Gothic films and Disney Studios, the monarchs in the children’s movies kingdom and you should head to see this film in the cinema in this bitter wintery cold. You’ll come out all warm, inside and out.
Update after a few days: I've just remembered another cinematographic reference! When the characters find shelter in the telephone box and the monsters throw themselves in flocks at the box. This is a reference to The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock :)