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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: Chris Bailey
Release Date: August 11, 1995
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

When compared to ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’ (1983) and ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1990), ‘Runaway Brain’ is a much less classic or classy affair. Based on a story idea by Tim Hauser, it has a genuine modern setting (in the first scene we watch Mickey playing a Snow White video game) and a horror motive, not seen in a Mickey Mouse film since ‘The Mad Doctor’ (1933).

The premise of the film plays on the relationship between Mickey and Minnie: to celebrate their anniversary, Mickey has planned a trip to a miniature golf course, but Minnie mistakes it for a trip to Hawaii on the same newspaper page, and runs off, happy as she can be. Mickey, however, is horrified by this mistake, realizing he cannot afford the necessary $999,99.

Luckily, Pluto helps him out by showing him the wanted ads, and Mickey immediately finds one offering exactly this amount for only a day of mindless work. This, of course, is a less rosy proposition than it seems, and soon Mickey finds himself prisoner of a mad chimp called Dr. Frankenollie (the name is a nice reference to legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and the character may be based on the mad professors Ecks, Doublex and Triplex from Floyd Gottfredson’s classic 1932 Mickey Mouse comic ‘Blaggard Castle’). This Frankenstein-like chimp swaps Mickey’s brain for a giant Pete-like monster, unfortunately dying during the process (this is the only death occurring in a Mickey Mouse film).

Mickey has never before been deformed so much as in this cartoon: while the real Mickey is trapped in giant Peg-leg Pete’s body, monster Mickey has become a rugged, wild character, running after Minnie in a chase that ends on top of a skyscraper, recalling that other great 1930s horror film, ‘King Kong’. Luckily, Mickey saves the day, and halfway a frantic chase, his and the monster’s brain get swapped back again when they both land on a power line.

‘Runaway Brain’ is a clear attempt to modernize Mickey: the short is fast paced, full of extreme angles and surprisingly gross gags (for a Disney cartoon that is). It’s not entirely successful in its attempt, however. The rather ugly color design is all too typical of the early 1990s, and Mickey’s playing of a video game actually makes the short look dated. This scene frankly adds nothing to the rest of the film, which has a much more timeless character due to its Frankenstein meets King Kong-like story.

Watching the distorted version of Mickey is rather unsettling, and it’s rather surprising that the studio allowed the animators to get away with such a deformation of their corporate symbol. Indeed, the merchandise department was far from happy with this short. Nevertheless, like the earlier ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’ ‘Runaway Brain’ was good enough for an Academy Award nomination, showing that Hollywood had not quite forgotten the mouse. Yet, the film understandably lost to the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’.

There’s much to say for the cartoon, however. The animation, supervised by Andreas Deja, is top notch, and a great example of the high standards of 2D animation of the Disney renaissance, before the threat of computer animation kicked in, and cut this development short. As one can expect, the action is relentless, and the short is over before you know it. The best gag may be when the monster discovers a picture from ‘Steamboat Willie’ (1928) in Mickey’s wallet, prompting our hero to say ‘that’s old’.

Watch ‘Runaway Brain’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 128
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Prince and the Pauper
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Get a Horse!

‘Runaway Brain ‘ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Living Color Volume two’

Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: July 1961
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
Rating:
Review:

Franken-stymied © Walter Lantz‘Franken-stymied’ starts with a classic stormy scene and Woody Woodpecker trying to hide from the storm in a castle.

Inside the castle a Frankenstein-like mad scientist has made a chicken-plucking robot called Frankie, and as soon Woody arrives, Frankie starts plucking him (luckily we see no effect – throughout these scenes Woody keeps all his tail feathers, no matter how many times they are plucked). It takes a while before Woody can take control, and in the end he manages to cover the scientist in feathers and make Frankie go after the unfortunate villain.

‘Franken-stymied’ was made by talented Disney veterans like Jack Hannah (direction), Don Lusk (animation), Homer Brightman (story) and Clarence Wheeler (music), but it doesn’t show. The cartoon suffers from bad timing, awful dialogue, canned music, ugly designs and poor animation, as if the budget was way too tight to deliver anything decent. Clearly, ‘Franken-stymied’ never comes near any Disney product, but even worse: it cannot even compete with Walter Lantz films from only one year earlier.

Watch ‘Franken-stymied’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Woody Woodpecker cartoon No. 109
To Woody Woodpecker’s debut film: Sufferin’ Cats
To the next Woody Woodpecker cartoon: Busman’s Holiday

‘Franken-stymied’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2″ as part of the ‘Woody Woodpecker Show’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: December 2, 1939
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sniffles and the Bookworm © Warner Bros.‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ opens with Sniffles taking refuge in a bookshop to escape the winter cold.

Inside Sniffles encounters the bookworm, who’s scared of the little mouse, and asks two book characters, the pied piper and a viking, for help. This first act is acted out completely silently, and is very, very Silly Symphony-like. Its uninteresting comedy is greatly helped by Carl Stalling’s score, who makes excellent use of music from Franz Schubert’s Moment musical no. 3.

When Sniffles turns out to be small, the pied piper suddenly starts playing the clarinet, with Sniffles joining in. Thus starts the second part, in which Sniffles, the bookworm and several nursery rhyme characters play and sing some peppy swing tune. Unfortunately, a particularly angular version of Frankenstein’s monster awakes, too, and soon spoils the fun. This second act is hardly more interesting than the first, but the swing music is nice.

With ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’, the third cartoon starring Sniffles, Chuck Jones gives his own twist on his precursor Frank Tashlin’s books-come-to-life series (e.g. ‘Have You Got any Castles?‘ and ‘You’re an Education‘ from 1938). Despite the paper-thin story about Sniffles and the bookworm itself it’s all there: book characters coming to life at night, characters performing some jazz music, and a threat which ends the fun – this all done with the highest production values possible at Leon Schlesinger’s studio at the time.

It’s hard to call the bookworm a classic character (after all, Sniffles himself isn’t really interesting). Yet, the bookworm would return in two other Sniffles cartoons: ‘The Egg Collector‘ (1940) and ‘Toy Trouble‘ (1941).

Watch ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

Director: ?
Release Date: June 24, 1933
Stars: Flip the Frog
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Techno-Cracked © Ub IwerksIn ‘Techno-Cracked’ the elder lady from ‘School Days‘ and ‘The Music Lesson‘ orders Flip to mow the lawn. What her relation is to Flip that she can do that, remains utterly unclear. It seems she was a sort of staple authority figure the Iwerks studio could use anytime.

Anyway, inspired by an article on robots, Flip builds his own one, being the last cartoon star to follow the robot trend of 1932/1933, after Fleischer’s ‘The Robot‘ (1932), Lantz’s ‘Mechanical Man‘ (1932), Disney’s ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man‘ (1933) and Columbia’s ‘Technoracket‘ (1933).

Of all these animated robots, Flip’s is the most improbable one. Indeed, Flip’s creation is more like a cousin of Frankenstein than a mechanical man: first, it comes to life by electric charge. Second, it has a pumpkin head, defying its mechanical character. Third, it hardly moves like a robot at all, and more like an ordinary rubber hose animated character, and fourth, it eats, it laughs and it uses a toilet.

However, the cartoon is a great showcase of what can go wrong with robots. When Flip orders the robot to mow the lawn, it does so with zeal, mowing everything in sight. In the end, the robot turns evil, and Flip has to destroy it.

‘Techno-Cracked’ is a fast-paced, gag-packed cartoon and among Flip the Frog’s best. The action is greatly enhanced by Carl Stalling’s inspired score, which uses The Song of the Volga Boat Men as a leitmotif, but in a major key.

Watch ‘Techno-Cracked’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 34
To the previous Flip the Frog cartoon: Flip’s Lunch Room
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: Bulloney

‘Techno-Cracked’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 2’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Penthouse © Max FleischerIn ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ Bimbo and Koko have a chemical laboratory.

Across the street, on a roof terrace, Betty is having a shower, stealing their attention. This part contains a particularly sexy scene of a towel drying Betty by itself. Meanwhile, their cat starts an experiment on its own, resulting in a Frankenstein-like monster, who starts threatening Betty, walking some wires to cross the street. This scene is the highlight of this cartoon, as the movements of the monster, Koko, and Bimbo are perfectly timed to the hot big band jazz accompanying the action. In the end, Betty transforms the monster into a giant flower, dancing on the rooftop with clearly rotoscoped movements.

As one may have noticed, ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ makes little sense, and its absurdity is greatly enhanced by the many throwaway gags fired at the audience. It makes this cartoon one of the last highlights of the Fleischers’ idiosyncratic pre-code animation style.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 12
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Is My Palm Read
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White

‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Georges Schwizgebel
Release Date: 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein © Georges Schwizgebel‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ starts with very abstract images, which resolve into Frankenstein’s laboratory as depicted in the film from 1931.

After 1’40 we become the monster itself, walking through endless chambers and corridors and staircases in an almost computer animation-like long sequence of perspective animation. The rooms, initially filled with abstract shapes, become more and more complex. They contain more and more windows and human forms, and finally moving human forms, ending with multiple copies of the monster’s bride. In the end we watch the monster itself, in his depiction by Boris Karloff. he smiles at his bride, but she only screams…

This film, which is set to very nervous electronic music, is a very impressive study of perspective: we really feel we are walking. The film has a repetitive and dreamlike quality, which is enhanced by its surreal settings, reminiscent of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

Watch ‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ is available on the DVD ‘Les Peintures animées de Georges Schwizgebel’

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