This stop-motion animated film opens with an homage to campy old horror films. The protagonist is a young boy whose father uses control to allay his concerns about his son being a "misfit" is a society that is predominantly ignorant and fearful. This boy's "gifts" cause him to become involved with the dead. The living dead rise and the boy must use his knowledge to restore restore peace in his quirky small town with a dark and unique history.
This film is
ParaNorman (August 17, 2012)
Directed by Chris Butler & Sam Fell
from Laika Entertainment
This film is
Frankenweenie (October 5, 2012)
Directed by Tim Burton
from Walt Disney Pictures
In ParaNorman, our young male protagonist is Norman. Norman can see the spirits of the lingering dead all around him. This puts him at odds with the painfully mundane citizens of Blithe Hollow, who treat him with apathy to antagonism. His father fears for his son, but lacks the tools to express this fear in any way but anger. His passive mother struggles to facilitate understanding between them.
In Frankenweenie, our young male protagonist is Victor. Victor is... good at science. This puts him at odds with no one but his father's expectations. The other children of New Holland appear to be equally as enrapt by science, and Victor is actually the most normal one among them. His father tells us that he's a misfit and goads him into playing baseball. His passive mother is... passive.
The town of Blithe Hollow was the site of a colonial witch hunt which has burdened the town with a witch's curse and the threat of the walking dead rising from their graves.
The town of New Holland was founded by Dutch settlers, thus explaining the windmill in the film's climax, and built on... an abandoned mine? An ancient burial ground? We can't be sure, other than it explains the frequent thunderstorms.
When Norman's creepy, societally rejected uncle dies, the burden falls to Norman to keep the living dead at bay for another year. With the reluctant aid of others, he gets to the bottom of Blithe Hollow's mystery, and, saving them, earns their respect.
When Victor's dog Sparky dies, his creepy, societally rejected science teacher gives him the idea of how he might reanimate his pooch. Reluctant to aid others, Victor's secret gets out, unleashing a plague of living dead pets. Sidestepping mystery, Victor and his friends smash monsters.
It was impossible, as I watched Frankeweenie, not to continually reflect upon ParaNorman, which had already become a favorite film for 2012, and in reflecting, it was nearly as difficult not to find Frankenweenie wanting in comparison.
ParaNorman was one of those classic stories; familiar, not because we've seen it before, but because it's true. It deals with universal themes. Its characters demonstrate human behaviors. Things happen because of natural reactions. It took a story that first appeared to be simple and challenged the basic preconceptions of who and what the living dead were, and in so doing, became something more.
Frankenweenie, perhaps not so surprisingly, felt like it was cobbled together from the dead pieces of other movies. While some have responded positively to it for representing a return to form for Tim Burton, it's like a reanimated form of old Burton, lacking in satisfaction or surprises.
It's Burton wanking to Burton.
Now I'm not one of those on the Bash on Burton bandwagon. For years, when others have accused him of falling off, I've continued to feel that there's always been something interesting to his films, even when they stumble... even when they're completely unnecessary remakes. Up until, pretty specifically, Alice in Wonderland.
Now, they're not the same movie and I am in no way suggesting that anyone copied anyone else. The film industry is certainly no stranger to very similar films coming out in proximity to each other, especially animated films -- A Bug's Life (1998) /Antz (1998), Finding Nemo (2003) /Shark Tale (2004) /Shark Bait (2006) -- but the similarities demanded analysis, and the analysis stacked up in favor of ParaNorman.
It attempted more. It was better animated. It was better designed. The characters, even the less likeable ones, were more relateable and dimensionally human.
The other was thin of thought and intent. It attempted nothing more than to serve up a reheated dish of the film-maker's obsessions. To start with, it's obviously a retelling of the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, recast as a boy-and-his-dog film, which is itself an overly familiar trope at this point. But Burton already did that in 1984 with a live-action short film, so this retells THAT, only longer. Little visual cues abound. The neighbor girl is predictably Winona. The monster cat's snaky legs are familiarly Beetlejuicy. The classroom science rivals are mad scientists from movies today's kids will not have seen.
Even the dog, Sparky, is reanimated from Brad Bird's 1987 Family Dog episode of Amazing Stories, upon which Burton served as Animation Designer.
I'd venture to say that ParaNorman exists in a universe where Tim Burton has already happened, or rather, is the product of a universe in which he's happened. "Okay, that's been done. We've seen that. NOW WHAT? Let's go deeper. Let's be about something."
Burton is still about being Burton. He's like a Burton App now. Hey, let's take [existing fiction] and Burton it up, and in this case, it's like Burton pulling a John Malkovich and ending up in a Burton Burton, Burton Burton Burton.... BURTON!!!
Which is not to say that Frankenweenie is bad, per se. It's fun. It's... I dunno, cute? It's probably very satisfying if you're looking for the Burton Experience, and perhaps more isolated from ParaNorman in context.
So in true Mirror, Mirror form, the Evil Twin goatee in the race between undead-themed animated films in 2012 goes to...
...Hotel Transylvania, because get the hell out of here with your Adam Sandler & Kevin James.