Thursday, January 3, 2013

Oscar Contenders: Frankenweenie and ParaNorman

Directed by Tim Burton
Released October 5, 2012

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Released August 17, 2012

I am certainly not the first person to compare two of this year’s likely candidates for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. They would absolutely fit the bill of my “Sunday Similar Subjects” feature from last year, and it’s hard not to discuss the two of them together because they really do resemble each other. Yet there’s a stark difference between “Frankenweenie” and “ParaNorman.” The former is a superbly stylized and well-told story of a child unwilling to grow up, while the latter is a considerably more childish and less moving tale of a child who has already grown up despite the immaturity of everyone around him.

Both films begin with a child protagonist who lives his life as an outcast. Victor Frankenstein is a science geek with an extraordinary brain, and Norman Babcock is a friendless loser with the ability to see and speak to dead people and animals. When Victor’s beloved dog Sparky is hit and killed by a car, he believes that he can resurrect him using his town’s signature lightning-heavy weather. When zombies come alive and begin ravaging through the town, Norman believes that only he can save the day by figuring out how to reverse the curse that has haunted his town since its witch-trial days.

Both stories demand sufficient suspicion of disbelief, for neither is meant to be taken literally. Both films received PG ratings since, while generally kid-friendly, the former contains some spooky elements and the latter some mildly foul language and, of course, the undead. For children, both might be equally effective, but in the increasingly popular realm of animated films truly made for all audiences, “Frankenweenie” far outpaces “ParaNorman,” showing much more depth and creativity. Both films use stop-motion animation effectively, but the black-and-white landscapes of “Frankenweenie” give that film an eerie and sophisticated edge.

It’s no surprise that a more experienced and proven filmmaker like Tim Burton is behind “Frankenweenie,” though it is worth noting that Chris Butler and Sam Fell both have animation backgrounds as well, and Butler even worked with Burton in the art department for “Corpse Bride.” Both films are generally fun, but it’s hard to appreciate “ParaNorman” after seeing a similar, if not quite as original (Burton made a 1984 short of the same name, based loosely, obviously, on “Frankenstein”) take on the same themes that uses both its format and its subject matter to much better effect.

Frankenweenie: B+
ParaNorman: B-

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