Despite the title of this post, I loved both Frankenweenie and Paranorman. I do not mean to imply any inherent conflict between the two, or suggest that one might only enjoy one or the the other. My intent is only to use the difference between two fantastic movies to elucidate some important points of storytelling. Both are movies I enjoyed, fully intend to enjoy again, and hope you have the opportunity to enjoy as well.
That being said, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you either have seen both, or don’t mind knowing what twists a story’s going to take before taking it in as the storyteller intended, because HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.
Speaking of spoilers, SPOILER ALERT, I preferred Paranorman by just about every criteria I could think of. Which, again, should not be taken as a knock on Frankenweenie necessarily, but as a testament to the quality of Paranorman. I wish there were more movies as much fun as Frankenweenie.
These two movies present a really interesting opportunity, in that they present two original, but similar stories (in broad strokes, a kid’s-eye-view of some (ultimately sympathetic) classic horror threat to his town, and the difficulty in getting the townspeople to understand) presented in similar media (both were shot in 3D stop motion, though they make very different stylistic choices), released very close to each other. These similarities make it much easier to isolate the variables (where they differ) that make one work better than the other.
So first, let’s talk style. The two movies approached the visual presentation of similar subject matter in very different ways. One of Frankenweenie‘s most sweeping stylistic choices was to go straight black and white as an homage to the 50’s era monster movies it draws from; Paranorman is in color, but its puppets and sets are all very off-kilter, which lends a pervasive sense of charming strangeness to every shot. Both were shot in 3D — Frankenweenie used deliberately misaligned stereoscopic images in a creative way at the beginning, but overall I enjoyed mentally inhabiting the space of Paranorman‘s Blithe Hollow more than Frankenweenie‘s New Holland. They both primarily used it for concave space, and Frankenweenie can be forgiven its one foray into “in your face 3D”, as I’m sure it was deliberately calling back to the 3D gimmicks of 50s B movies. There are a number of other notable stylistic differences (translucent vs. opaque puppet skin, for instance) but both were a lot of fun to take in visually and I’ll definitely be getting the blu-ray copies of both to fully enjoy the craftsmanship of the puppets and sets.
Where Paranorman really comes out on top for me is in the story. It has the advantage of being planned as a feature from the beginning, whereas Frankenweenie is an extension of a short Burton made back in 1984 (sadly-hilariously getting him fired from Disney at the time — 18 years later, Disney has obviously changed its mind about him and the story). Unfortunately, the padding shows. The extra screentime for Frankenweenie is filled out with other kids discovering Victor’s pet-resurrection technique and raising their own critters who all take on the forms of various classic movie monsters and attack the town fair. It’s all a lot of fun to watch, but it really doesn’t relate to the heart of the original story — Victor first trying to be reunited with his canine friend, and then fighting to overcome the town’s fear of his creation. The side romp with the other monster-critters was all good fun, but it really didn’t do anything to advance that central story. Paranorman had a strong narrative drive throughout, while it was not always clear that Frankenweenie was going anywhere.
On the topic of classic movie references, Paranorman did more to actively engage the tropes it used than did Frankenweenie. Aside from the central (original) Frankenstein framing, the references in Frankenweenie are pretty superficial. One of the risen pets, “Colossus”, is visually similar to The Mummy (insofar as it was interred in an impressively large tomb and is wrapped in mummy-ish linens) but makes no connection to the story or character of The Mummy. “Shelly”, the turtle whose resurrection was touched with a healthy dose of Miracle-Gro, does nothing to comment on or communicate the ideas of kaiju movies (either the better known Godzilla, or the technically more direct reference of Gamera), though the choice of a turtle named “Shelly” is a fun little nod to the origins of the Frankenstein story. None of the other monsters really do anything with their source material either, nor were all of the references particularly clear — there’s one that starts in the style of The Fly, but ends up being a Dracula stand-in, and the rat was only really identifiable as a Wolfman reference by process of elimination. Now, parsing all the various classic references was a lot of fun, but Paranorman went farther. Starting with the idea of these zombies raised by a witch’s curse, it uses both the zombies and the witch to blur the line between bully and bullied (a central idea of the story). The two movies develop a similar arc for the relationship between the central “monster” and the genre-savvy townsfolk, moving from fear to sympathy, but everything in Paranorman drives the story to that point while Frankenweenie has a lot of distracting elements muddying the thematic waters. The core story of Frankenweenie does a good job of engaging the source material, but the extra padding is just padding.
However, the biggest reason I think Paranorman is more compelling is in the characters. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing is that every character should want something, “even if it’s just a glass of water”. It’s been several weeks since I saw Paranorman, yet I can more clearly remember what each character wanted than from watching Frankenweenie this weekend. Norman has conflicting motivations, wanting to be left alone yet being tasking with the salvation of the town; Neil wants a friend in Norman; Norman’s sister wants Neil’s brother; Norman’s dad wants him to be normal, etc. Not every secondary character has a really clear desire, but enough of them do to make the story memorable. In Frankenweenie, Victor wants Sparky back; the science teacher (who, BTW, was absolutely my favorite character aside from Sparky) wants to inspire the kids to love science; the Mayor wants… control, I guess? Beyond that, things get muddled. Victor’s dad at one point wants him to play baseball, but that doesn’t really come up again after the game — the parents are generally supportive of their odd son, but otherwise are just sort of there. All the kids seem to really want to win the science fair, although I don’t remember there being any sort of stakes laid out — as the loner science-geek, Victor has the most reason to want to win, but he seems the least concerned with the competition. I never really got why everyone wanted it so bad; it just seemed like a reason concocted to explain why they all wanted to run out and re-animate dead animals. In Paranorman, you’re given reason to care if the characters succeed or not, while in Frankenweenie you just have to take the plot-motivated-motivations at face value and roll with it. Now, that rolling is quite a bit of fun, but isn’t as compelling as the more fleshed-out characters of Paranorman.
Stating again for the record, I enjoyed Frankenweenie; I just enjoyed Paranorman more, and found this an interesting opportunity to examine the reasons one connected more than the other. Go, watch both, and draw your own conclusions!