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Fantastic Fest: “Frankenweenie” and “Dredd 3D”

I actually saw the original “Frankenweenie” short in theater as a kid; it was an unexpected bonus in front of Disney’s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend, a live-action movie about finding brontosauri in Africa that I suspect has been justifiably forgotten by time. I’d never have guessed the director would go on to be the poster boy for family friendly goth, but it was certainly fun – a black and white retelling of Frankenstein starring the family dog. In Tim Burton’s new feature-length remake, now in 3D stop-motion but still black and white, many of the same beats and gags are hit, with more characters and padding this time around. It’s still charming, and very pretty to look at it, but awfully thin stuff; if you’ve seen the trailer, just imagine that everything plays out exactly as you’d expect, and you’ve nailed it. Its best bet is as a gateway drug for children from Disney to classic monsters, a transition explicitly made when the opening Disney castle and “When You Wish Upon A Star” suddenly switch to black and white with retro-scary organ music.

In some ways, this is Burton as Tarantino, quite blatantly doing a pastiche of his favorite references (the lead family are actually called the Frankensteins), which is most fun when things escalate with the creation of additional monster pets beyond just the dog Sparky (a finale in a flaming building suggests that Burton was actually trying to do this kind of Universal homage with Dark Shadows as well). But unlike with Tarantino, the characters don’t stick beyond the references. Lead character Victor is a bore, as are his parents; classmates based on Boris Karloff and Igor the hunchback are fun, but only inasmuch as they recall their archetypes. Best of all is the school’s deranged science teacher, who looks like Vincent Price, sounds like Willem Dafoe and is actually voiced by Martin Landau, all of which (and not a great deal more) is precisely why he’s funny.

Nothing about Frankenweenie the feature is offensively stale like some of Burton’s recent work – it’s always fun to look at, and has its share of good lines. It’s just not that exciting a thing to recommend, either. A black cat or two may hiss in your face, but in a year where Paranorman seriously upped the ante on this kind of stuff, there ironically isn’t a lot that jumps out at you here.

Frankenweenie was one of two opening-night, high-profile 3D movies at Fantastic Fest, with the other being the decidedly family unfriendly Dredd 3D (here at the office, we have debated whether or not the studio should have been overly cute and called it Dr3dd, ultimately deciding that could sound too much like the name of a surgeon specializing in overly large breast implants). Unlike a Frankenstein tale, Judge Dredd is a tough thing to get right onscreen, as the elaborate future the comic-book character inhabits generally requires a budget larger than any studio executive in his right mind wants to spend on a “hero” who’s basically a fascist asshole. Though set in a future U.S., Judge Dredd in print was very British in execution, as a pitch-black satire of ’80s action heroes who’s as likely to abuse your civil rights as he is to brutally put down the bad guys. Put in today’s terms, he’d be the guy doing the torturing at Abu Ghraib, but if it comes down to it and Al Qaeda are trying to kill you, you might possibly maybe want him on your side, at least for a moment. Walter Hill often knew how to strike this balance onscreen – the way you deal with a fascist hero is to create a bad guy who’s even worse, and indeed, Dredd’s classic nemesis is Judge Death, who sees life itself as a crime.

You don’t get Death or any of the weirder post-nuke mutants in the new Dredd 3D – like Christopher Nolan’s Batman, it presents a “real-world” Dredd, in what looks like an actual future slum with only a few high-tech elements, many of which are believable advances on current surveillance devices. Due to the insistence of the fans, the hardass Judge never takes off the helmet that, realistically, would absolutely wreck his peripheral vision; this is a necessary affectation to please those burned by Sylvester Stallone’s take (which was ruined more by Rob Schneider and a romantic subplot than anything helmet-based, but whatever). The sufficiently evil baddie this time around is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a ruthless drug lord who rules a giant tenement building with an iron fist. Trapping Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) inside when they come to investigate, she promptly insists that everyone in the building ensure their death. Dredd, naturally enough, responds with ultra-violence and Clint Eastwood-style verbal snarls. Urban’s delivery, which blatantly parodies Eastwood as effectively as he did DeForest Kelley in Star Trek, goes back and forth – sometimes he speaks in his normal Karl Urban voice, which is a strange contrast. Dredd himself always was half-Eastwood parody, so this works, though it may not to a casual audience member who doesn’t get that it’s tribute rather than rip-off.

The elephant in the room is The Raid: Redemption, but for my money, this is the more fun of the year’s two “drug lord in a tower” action flicks, mainly because it has better-defined characters, and proves that personality goes a long way in getting you to care. The 3D, incidentally, mostly sucks, only coming to life in some brief drug-trip sequences that deliver extreme slo-mo. The cynical tone may keep mainstream audiences from digging Dredd, but fans of the character can sleep soundly knowing he got more-or-less correctly to screen at least once.

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