Tim Burton reaches the outer limits of creepy in Frankenweenie, the 3D remake of his 1984 animated short about a boy who plays Frankenstein and brings his dead dog Sparky back to life. That’s why it was a relief to step from that gothic cliché to the more original ParaNorman, another 3D animated film but about a boy whose response to death transcends morbid fascination.
Both films are being sold as Halloween treats, but Frankenweenie is the rotten apple. It represents the excesses of Burton’s success (especially after his brutally unimaginative Alice in Wonderland). Burton seems to have lost that sense of humorous whimsy which turned his early work about lonely, eccentric, death-haunted boys into satires on both normalcy and sappiness.
Since his collaboration with Johnny Depp attained fame, wealth and power, Burton’s humor has dried up. Depp’s production company is disturbingly titled Infinitum Nihil, and except for Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (also the acting highlights of Depp’s career), their partnership has had almost Faustian costs. Burton exhibits weirdness for his own sake, as if prostituting what once made him unique. The light has gone out in his recent films, and this big-budget Frankenweenie loses any sense of innocence.
Burton’s little Victor Frankenstein represents all the Burton commonplace oddities from Edward Scissorhands on—especially the unbearable Nightmare Before Christmas. Without that film’s mind-numbing music score, the story is still annoying in its play on horror-film clichés that are now Burton clichés. Victor’s reanimation routine evokes the 1930s horror films from Universal Studios that have long passed from common knowledge. Jokes like Sparky’s romance with a poodle who sprouts a Bride of Frankenstein white stripe have no punch—the cultural resonance is lost. When Victor’s schoolmates (other ghoulish children with catatonic, petrified faces) reanimate their dead pets, the monster-movie results are predictable and tired.
Burton uses a Charles Addams gray-scale color scheme but doesn’t know how to satirize it; his love of the outré has become second-hand (the cause of Dark Shadows’ misfire). Earlier, in his 1984 animated short Vincent (also about a lonely kid), Burton created an affectionate sense of alienation resolved through movie lore. The relatively harmless, truly childlike tribute to Hollywood horror icon Vincent Price predated fan boy culture. Now that cynicism, nihilism and creepiness rules the culture, Burton’s knack has become oppressive—anti-art and anti-humane (the cause of Sweeney Todd’s misfire). Under the guise of Halloween drollery, Burton’s wit has become infernal.
But ParaNorman shows what Burton lacks. Little Norman Babcock “sees dead people,” turning the pop cliché of The Sixth Sense into a new expression of childhood grief—Norman’s longing for his grandmother. This gift makes him an outcast, but it also personalizes what might otherwise be grim. ParaNorman doesn’t exploit the family-movie market; its poignancy may have caused its box-office flop, but it’s one of the most sophisticated works of 3D animation since Coraline.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell depict Norman’s visions in a yellowy-green glow, like the appearance of Constance Cummings in David Lean’s film of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Norman lives in the small New England town of Blithe Hollow, whose mean living (a 24/7 Halloween) reverses traditional Puritanism. It’s up to Norman to save the town from a 300-year-old curse following its witch trials. His remedy is the lessons learned from storybook lore—an empathetic sense of pain and loss that surpasses the Burton-Depp idea of wicked “fun.”
ParaNorman is more creative than Frankenweenie. Norman’s crooked nostrils, his jowly mother and chinless father are caricatures on a human scale, but they also show the tactile rubberiness and translucence of dolls. Unlike Frankenweenie, ParaNorman has infectious charm and graspable purpose. The horror genre isn’t a satirical cop-out but a sensitive approach to modern confusion; Butler and Fell respect our cultural heritage, as in references to Hawthorne’s great short story “Young Goodman Brown,” identifying the bullying mob mentality now rampant in our supposedly enlightened era.
Not all ParaNorman’s ideas are worked out fully, but its points are worthy: “We thought we knew our way in life. In death we are lost.” And it’s visually exceptional: A vision of Norman’s grandma dematerializes into a young woman screaming on a horror movie poster. It’s positively Dantesque—Joe Dante, that is.
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