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Director: Tim Burton
Release Date:
September 20, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Frankenweenie’ was the third horror-themed animated feature of 2012, after ’ParaNorman’ and ’Hotel Transylvania’. Based on a short live action film director Tim Burton made way back in 1984 when still working at Disney, Again made at Disney, the new ‘Frankenweenie’ is obviously an ode to classic horror cinema, and to ‘Frankenstein’ from 1931 in particular.

Indeed, the references to other films are all over the place, and as horror is not my specialty, I’m sure I have not nearly caught half of them. It already starts with the town’s name, ‘New Holland’, which is a direct reference to the Dutch settlement in which Irving Washington’s tale of horror ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ (1820) takes place.

Main protagonist Victor’s surname is Frankenstein. His eccentric science teacher takes after horror actor Vincent Price, while Edgar, one of his school mates, looks like the hunchbacked Fritz in ‘Frankenstein’. Another school mate looks like a mix between Buster Keaton and the monster of Frankenstein, and so on and so forth. In the finale Burton even throws references to 1950s movie monsters into the mix, unfortunately diluting the theme on the way.

In any case ‘Frankenweenie’ suffers from a lack of focus. Not only can’t Burton stick to the Frankenstein theme, but his film is also stuffed with ideas that lead nowhere. For example, there’s an evil neighbor, whose role is hardly played out. He lives up to a festival day called ‘Dutch Day’, but again very little is done with the concept. This neighbor guards one Elsa van Helsing (yes, there’s another reference), a probable love interest to Victor, but this story idea isn’t developed beyond conception. Then there’s the father who worries Victor becomes too weird – and again, this story idea is only used to get the story at the point at which Victor can revive his deceased dog, after which this subplot never returns.

There’s a particularly large number of villains in this film: the neighbor is evil, Edgar is evil, Toshiaki (yet another of Victor’s schoolmates) is evil, but like the other story elements their particular stories are touched, not played out. We mostly learn that reviving animals apparently is deadly easy. Best of the oddball characters that fill the film is a wide-eyed girl with a cat that prophecies in its poo.

Tim Burton certainly has indulged in stuffing his film with references, but what he wanted to tell with his story is less clear. There’s even a completely idiotic message (voiced by Victor’s science teacher) that science can only succeed when you put your heart into it. Really?! If you’d believe this, you’d believe science is more like magic than a method.

Despite the weak story, the film’s finale consists of twenty minutes of pure action and excitement, ending in a burning windmill (yes, echoing ‘Frankenstein’). This sequence is full of stunning cinematography and complex sets. There’s even a moment of real horror, including a scare moment. Unfortunately, after the action sequence the films ends forced and cliché with e.g., an applauding crowd, missing an opportunity for a more intelligent and daring ending.

It’s a shame ‘Frankenweenie’ doesn’t deliver story-wise, for the film’s looks are a delight. In design ‘Frankenweenie’ is clearly the successor of Burton’s earlier and similarly horror-themed stop-motion films, ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993) and, more obviously, ‘Corpse Bride’ (2005). Like in those earlier films, the puppets are top-heavy, with long slender limbs. But unlike these two earlier films, ‘Frankenweenie’ is no musical, and Burton made the bold move to film this movie in black and white, enhancing the classic feel. The cinematography is at times no less than marvelous, like in the reviving scene, or the scenes at the graveyard.

The animation is fine, but sometimes on the bland side, especially on Victor’s parents and secondary characters, whose expressions are too often rather empty gazes. Moreover, nowhere do the animators manage to blow genuine feelings into the puppets (most of the characters are just weird anyway), and the film lacks proper emotion, even in its most desperate scenes.

‘Frankenweenie’ is not a bad film, it’s too well crafted for that, but when compared to Burton’s earlier movie ‘Corpse Bride’ or to Laika’s contemporary and comparable ‘ParaNorman’ it just falls short on its potential. Especially ‘ParaNorman’ does well what ‘Frankenweenie’ does not: staying focused, spinning a tale with a clear message, building characters you care for, and giving the film a surprising twist. At least we should be thankful that 2012 brought us no less than two stop motion features, keeping the old technique alive and kicking in a sea of computer animation.

Watch the trailer for Frankenweenie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

’Frankenweenie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: May 24, 1941
Stars: a.o. Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Johnny Weismuller, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Harpo Marx, Bing Crosby, Leopold Stokowski, James Stewart, Sonja Henie, Boris Karloff, the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Peter Lorre, Henry Fonda, Buster Keaton, Jerry Colonna, Clark Gable, Groucho Marx
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Hollywood Steps Out © Warner Bros.Caricatures of Hollywood stars have been featured in many animated cartoons since ‘Felix goes Hollywood’ (1923).

With cartoons like ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933), ‘Soda Squirt‘ (1933), ‘Mickey’s Polo Team’ (1936). ‘The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos’ (1937) and ‘Mother Goes to Hollywood’ (1938) the caricatures even became the main attraction of the cartoon. This trend reached its climax in Tex Avery’s ‘Hollywood Steps Out’, as this is a spot gag cartoon on nothing but Hollywood stars. After this short Hollywood stars kept popping up in cartoons, but not in such abundance as in this short.

In ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ we watch the stars of the silver screen going out at the Ciro’s nightclub, which had opened in 1940. The gags are actually rather lame, but it’s a sheer joy to see all these caricatures of late 1930s Hollywood stars, some still famous, others forgotten. Among the more familiar names are Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Johnny Weismuller (as Tarzan), James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Harpo Marx, Bing Crosby, Leopold Stokowski, James Stewart, Sonja Henie, Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein), the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Peter Lorre, Henry Fonda, Buster Keaton and Jerry Colonna.

Also featured are Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger, the animators’ bosses. The cartoon contains some rotoscoped dance movements, including a rather sexy bubble dance, and a running gag about Clark Gable following a girl who turns out to be Groucho Marx.

The caricatures in ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ were based on drawings by Ben Shankman, whose work was first used by Friz Freleng in ‘Malibu Beach Party’ (1940), and who clearly is a worthy successor of Joe Grant (e.g. ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier’) and T. Hee (e.g. ‘Mother Goes to Hollywood’). All Shankman’s caricatures in ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ are pretty good to excellent. Moreover, most of them are well-animated, with the animation of James Stewart as a particular highlight. Like the otherwise very different ‘Old Glory‘ (1939) this short shows that by the turn of the decade the Warner Bros. animators could handle the human figure very well.

The voices, too, are very well done. In ‘The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons’ Keith Scott reveals they were all done by one Kent Rogers, who was not yet 18 when ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ was released. Rogers also voiced e.g. Willoughby, Beaky Buzzard, and ‘Henery Hawk’. Unfortunately, he died in World War II in 1944, cutting short a career that might have become as illustrious as Mae Questel’s or Mel Blanc’s. In a way ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ stands out as his greatest work.

Apart from a celebration of Hollywood stars, ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ is also a testimony of the conga craze that took over the United States in the early forties: the irresistible conga beat sounds in the opening sequence and during the dance scene. Other examples of cartoons prominently featuring conga music are ‘Mickey’s Birthday Party’ (1942), ‘Juke Box Jamboree‘ (1942) and ‘Springtime for Pluto‘ (1944).

Watch ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hollywood Steps Out’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’ and the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Two’

 

Director: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: November 27, 1933
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

The Merry Old Soul © Walter LantzThis short opens with Oswald sitting in a dentist’s chair. The dentist knocks Oswald out to be able to pull his sore tooth.

Then the radio announces that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald immediately runs off to warn all Hollywood entertainers, a.o. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Laurel & Hardy, Ed Wynn, but also Wallace Beery and Greta Garbo. They all hurry to the depressed king. Old King Cole looks quite similar to the same character in the Silly Symphony ‘Old King Cole‘ from four months earlier, proof of how close the rival studios followed the Disney output.

Paul Whiteman plays a tune for him, and Oswald sings a song about Mother Goose, assisted by a.o. Joe E. Brown, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Mae West, and a stuttering person I don’t recognize [this is Roscoe Ates – thank you Don M. Yowp  for the info]. This immediately cheers up the old king. Then Laurel & Hardy enter with a pile of pies, which soon results in a large pie throwing battle, featuring a.o. Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Durante, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers. Meanwhile, Old King Cole’s old jester grows jealous of Oswald’s success. The jester kidnaps Oswald and takes him into a dark cellar. Soon Oswald awakes, revealing it all has been a dream…

Despite the trite dream ending, ‘The Merry Old Soul’ is a quite entertaining cartoon. The short follows a trend that really caught on in 1933 of simply stuffing cartoons with Hollywood stars. Earlier examples are the great Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘, and ‘Soda Squirt‘ featuring Flip the Frog. Five years later, Disney would also mix Mother Goose and Hollywood stars in ‘Mother Goose goes Hollywood’ (1938), which owes nothing to this Oswald short.

Watch ‘The Merry Old Soul’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Merry Old Soul’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’.

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