(Spoilers for both “Frankenweenie” and “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)!)
As a director and visually insightful storyteller, Tim Burton has been a critical darling as well as an icon and initiator of Popular Goth Culture. Successful as a director, writer and producer, Burton has done some truly fantastic films, such as “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Batman” (1989) and “Edward Scissorshand” (1990), with the latter film being a film classic and arguably still his best work to date. After 2005, Burton has had a bit of a creative decline which can, perhaps, be pinpointed in his being too overly productive (Looking at his resume at IMDB, it’s stated that Mr. Burton made two films in both 2005 and 2012) and stuck in the trap of his own brilliant style and quirky narrative deployments. His current work has also grown towards the habit of filming adaption’s of previous existing films, novels and plays, and many of his critics have claimed this to be an ongoing error and a major cause of his fall from his high style.
However Burton is, and has always been, good in plying at the fresh fields implied in the adaption’s he has tackled. His darkly comical version of “Sweeney Todd” was extremely engaging and fascinating, as was his vision of the comic book hero Batman. Making his own personal interpretation of already existing ideals is not necessarily a bad move. The problem lies more in that Mr. Burton doesn’t seem to always think through the interesting aspects of the stories he re-creates.
Adding to the faults which have motivated criticism of Burton’s work since the new millennium, and which can be seen in his latest work “Alice in Wonderland” and “Frankenweenie”, Burton has begun to rely more on demonizing marginalized groups in the guise of shaping his villains and uses the soft narrative contrivance that conflates the normal attractive, or beautiful, guise with that of the good person of the narrative.
“Frankenweenie” is a re-make of a short film Tim Burton made when he was just starting out as a film maker. The story centers a young boy, Victor, who through a logic-free science brings his dog back to life. The story begins with showing Victor being a loner who instead of wanting to have friends prefers the company of his dog Sparky while making inventions and homemade films, starring of course Sparky. After introducing their protagonist, who at this point should be mentioned is white, cis-gendered, male and non-disabled (his character modeling is made personify the cute, i.e. fits our society ideas of what is a decent looking person would entail), the viewer gets a glimpse of his schools class: they consist of a heavily over-weight boy named Bob, a Japanese-American boy named Toshiaki, a girl with pale hair and giant black circles around her eyes, a boy who is most certainly a person of color (possibly having roots in the Middle east) named Nassor and a hunchbacked boy named Edgar. At first it’s a refreshing scene, seeing so many different types of children; especially seeing children of color and disabled children, since these groups are often ignored in mainstream films and media. But very quickly it turns out the roles for all these children are the roles of antagonist. Everyone is a bully. Victor is the victim.
The Weird girl, the one with pale hair and the sullen eyes, warns Victor that something will happen to him in the near future since her pet cat has had a vision. The vision being that one of its feces is shaped like a “V”; apparently the cat Mr. Whiskers has had feces in the shape of a letter that each student’s name begins with and shortly after something big has in fact happened to the kid in question. Victor blows this warning off since he doesn’t believe in this odd take on a superstition. Fair enough, however Victor is rather dismissive of the Weird Girl (who doesn’t even get a name) and openly shows her with his hostile body language that he doesn’t want to talk to her. He just says curtly “sure” and quickly leaves. I myself am a hard-core atheist and find superstition illogical, but for the sake of goodness, when someone is just trying to be nice and warn you without being offensive, you should at least be polite back.
After this exchange with the Weird Girl we see Edgar, another of Victor’s classmates approaching to ask of Victor a favor. Edgar, in this scene, is shown having trouble understanding personal space, so Victor being uncomfortable with how close Edgar gets to him appears reasonable to the viewer. Nevertheless, Edgar has approached Victor to simply suggest that they work together on a science project since neither of them have any friends. Victor responds simply that he wants to work alone, while crawling away from Edgar. Why? This revulsion is never explained. Edgar is not being mean. He is simply stating that they could work together since both are friendless. Victor denies the request but no reason is forthcoming, though Edgars socially “odd looks and behavior” seem swimmingly obvious.
The pivot point of the narrative of “Frankenweenie” comes when Sparky the dog is run over by a car and killed and we follow the trajectory of grief this brings to Victor. Victor’s obsession with Sparky’s death is transfigured when, during a science lesson, he is enlightened by how the muscles of even the dead respond to electricity. This inspires Victor with the plan to attempt the same technique to bring his dog back to life (as even Mary Shelly was inspired by the like experiments in her day to incorporate them into her “Frankenstein”). Victor succeeds in reanimating his pet, but wisely decides to keep the fact that he has awoken his dead dog a secret. This attempt at concealing the reanimated falls apart when Edgar spots Sparky chasing a cat. Edgar then proceeds to blackmail Victor into showing him how he brought the dog back to life. If Victor doesn’t show Edgar how he was able to bring his pet back to life, he will tell everyone about Sparky. Victor then reluctantly demonstrates the technique with a gold fish.
Before this point, the film was a typical Burton kid film: comfortable macabre with a light heart. A boy brings his dog back to life because he loves his dog so much. But then Edgar starts blackmailing Victor, bullying him into bringing a gold fish back to life. Edgar happily goes to school with the re-animated gold fish. It is then reveled that all of the other students are bullies: after Edgar blackmails Victor, he is cornered at school by Nassor who threatens him. Nassor makes it clear that if Edgar doesn’t tell him what he’s hiding, he’s in trouble. Simultaneously, Toshiaki and Bob are shown bickering about the upcoming science fair. Bob claims Toshiaki is the “smart one” out of the two, stereotyping the over-weight Bob as naturally stupid and Toshiaki as the naturally smart and science-obsessed one. Toshiaki is also shown being sinister and malevolent, as illustrated when he decides that a proper way to win the science fair is by forcefully strapping Bob to a small rocket and launching it off the roof, all while speaking in poor English. Toshiaki in short embodies every negative stereotype against Asians imaginable.
While it is refreshing to see a children’s film with a diverse cast, it is unfortunate that the entire diverse cast is in fact demonized. The only character that belongs slightly to a marginalized group and is not demonized is Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, who is an immigrant (but, he is not a Person of Color like Nassor and Toshiaki. Make of that what one will). Mr. Rzykruski is shown being an energetic and supportive teacher who is falsely accused of inspiring children to do deadly experiments. This results into an awesomely funny speech while he tries to defend himself, which will be linked below. (The science teacher’s design is strongly modeled after the deceased legendary actor Vincent Price, who worked with and strongly influenced Mr. Burton. Mr. Price was a major inspiration for Tim Burton’s first short animation, “Vincent” (1982)).
Mr. Rzykruski is the one to tell Victor he should become a scientist, which brings up another major problem with the film.
Whether it was intentional or not, the film sends the message that only white, “decent looking” men should be involved with science. The science replacement teacher the class gets is a woman, who formally taught PE. One of the students proclaims she knows nothing about science, to which she then snaps that she knows enough. The problem here is that there is an extreme lack of women in science as well as their being many harmful prejudices against women that make it difficult for them to take place in science. By having the female teacher being mean and ignorant of science is not progressive. It is also an outdated stereotype that strong women are mean.
In the films climax all of the kids Victor has interacted with decide to bring an animal back to life. After Victor’s secret is reviled Toshiaki, Nassor, Weird girl, Edgar and Bob all try to bring an animal back from the dead. After blackmailing and threatening, the kids enter Victor’s room, looking for the device that brought Sparky alive. The children all decide to experiment and to try to bring an animal back to life. Edgar brings a rat back to life, Toshiaki his pet turtle, Nassor his hamster and Bob sea creatures. Weird Girl tries the technique on a dead bat, but accidently mixes the creature with her cat. As one can predict, all of the creatures become uncontrollable monsters that start wrecking and terrorizing the city. The only explanation that is given for the significant different results of bringing the animals alive are that one must “love” the science or experiment. The explanation does not hold up, for Toshiaki and Nassor brought back their pets; sounds like there was a hint of love in that experimentation. True, they are more concerned with winning the science fair, but they actively chose their own pets instead of random dead animals. Weird Girl most definitely loved her cat. And lots of great science has been driven and performed by curiosity and ambition, which Edgar and Weird Girl probably were embodying in their own experiments. So the message of the film is that only white, non-disabled, thin males should do science. Everyone else – People of Color, women, the disabled – will only cause trouble. The film hammers home the message by even having Victor figure out how to destroy all the monsters and save the town. The person who no doubt has most of the privilege saves the day, proving that only white men can do science and fulfill its consequences. The statement about “loving science” becomes only an excuse for prejudice.
As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that the meanest adult in the film is a bald man. He bullies his “pretty” niece and yells constantly at Victor. So people who fit our society’s ideals of “unattractive” are also bad since beauty and looks is what marks out the parameters of a good person.
Another case in point is the work of “Alice” by Tim Burton which moves along the same direction in the demonization of marginalized groups. In “Alice In Wonderland”, the villainous Red Queen is given an abnormally large head. The Mad Hatter in the film revels that residents fighting against the Red Queen use a slogan that goes: “Down with the Bloody Big head”. Even worse, the White Queen is hinted at being a bit dangerous (has served human fingers in a jar), yet she’s the one the audience is suppose to root for and the happy ending is encapsulated in the storyline with her being crowned Queen in the instead of her repugnant sister the Red Queen. The film implies that the White Queen should be the ruler, since she’s “prettier” and the lack of attractiveness on the surface pierces deep into the soul (causes or is caused by is never fully explored). Using the Red Queens looks (which may be a form of disability) as a way to critique her is placed on the viewer as a “given” and hints if not commits ableism. It also hammers home the message that only the attractive should be in positions of power and visibility.
This rejection of the outliers of accepted “looks” in Alice (the Red Queen has a “misshapen” head) along with placing the hunchbacked Edgar in “Frankenweenie” as a villain and mostly to blame for the problems in the film (he’s the one to push Victor to show him the device and then tell about it to others) makes a disturbing new pattern in Burton’s film. Indeed, the man who once defended people’s rights to not fit into our society’s norms now appears to be demonizing the very same.
The menagerie of children in “Frankenweenie” are supposedly a reference to different horror films, with each character being a reference to classical horror genres and it is no surprise that Burton wants to express an ode to these influential and important classic horror films. The problem lies with the ill conceived and notable disregard of the historical context of these films. The majority of these films were made in times when a lot of marginalized groups were completely deprived of rights, dismissed by the society at large, seen as problematic to majority culture, marginalized by negative imagery, and were nearly always portrayed negatively in cinema. So casting these old stereotypes into his film does not work without insight to the historical ethnicity and becomes double edge sword cutting towards the highly offensive. You simply cannot have a privileged person being the victim and all the marginalized groups being villains. Yes, even the privileged can have difficult lives, but that does not take away the fact that we still live in a highly hierarchical world where those of marginalized groups struggle to be engaged equally in the social, cultural and political. When Victor is the hero and is shown as the only one we should like and the only one who should be allowed to do science that hierarchy is strengthened. And that is fairly harmful, if not irresponsible.
Tim Burton has been and remains an important filmmaker. There is no other director quite like him. In his earlier works, Tim Burton has even strongly defended outsiders and probably doesn’t mean to be offensive. It is crucial that he should start thinking more about what roles he gives to marginalized characters; then he will once again be on top of his game.