Simon Birch and Frankenweenie
Every now and again, I page through the upcoming movies on the channels we get to see what might be worth recording for a casual future viewing. This net caught both films reviewed here today. Frankenweenie expands Tim Burton’s famous early film (which Disney did not like, at the time) about a boy who brings his dog back from the dead. It’s a low dramatic arc with high drama and a good story. It’s also full of truly funny animation. Simon Birch is a famously maligned tear-jerker from the late 90s that adapts one of my favorite novels (A Prayer for Owen Meany) by cutting it in half and distilling out the complexity with sap.
A few thoughts on these tales:
- We have, in these two films, a clash of worldviews. Neither stories want us to accept death as a random shitty fact of life, but rather to understand it in the larger context as either something God wants or science will help us overcome.
Both tales cut significant lessons from their source texts.
- dodges the problem of scientific ethics by infusing
- as one of the ingredients. Victor’s experiment worked because he loved his dog, whereas the monsters created by the other experimenters were not loved in the same way. Shelley’s horror at the dangers of science go missing from the tale.
- dodges the complexity of its title character by making him a saintly martyr, confident in his life because God has a plan for him. Irving’s novel gives its title character much more complexity, makes him a regular person with all sorts of faults.Both films stand on a scaffold of old tropes, as well.
- uses so many tear-jerker cliches, you’ll want your bingo card out. We have the heroic disadvantaged person, a romantic/ expressionist world where God shines His love down via swirling leaves (hence making October the holiest month), stereotypical bullies, tweenage boy resentful of his mother’s suitor, lingering by gravestones, and the dramatic sacrifice that Makes It All Worth It.
- uses old tropes in a winking way, rewarding fans of old Universal horror films with character names, set pieces, plot points, and other references. My favorite, a dramatic chase that leads to a flaming windmill.I love the casts of both films.
- employs to great effect the voices of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, and Winona Ryder. Meanwhile,
- surrounds the eponymous protagonist with Joseph Mazello (the boy from
- ), Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, Jan Hooks, David Strathairn, and Dana Ivey as grand mother (a character actress you’d recognize as “offended upper-class lady” from all sorts of movies).
Frankenweenie is worth a watch, a cute evocation of old movies that has both cleverness and heart. Simon Birch has solid Oliver Platt time, which is always a good thing, but is otherwise just the schmaltzy tale you probably thought it was. Go read A Prayer for Owen Meany instead. It’s probably more schmaltzy than I remember, but it’s also certainly better than the film.