Sunday 20 January 2013

Vincent (1982)

Director: Tim Burton
Star: Vincent Price

1984's Frankenweenie ran thirty minutes and cost a cool million bucks. Two years earlier, having only worked on less personal projects, like The Fox and the Hound, as an animator or conceptual artist, Walt Disney Animations only trusted Burton with $60,000 for a six minute short, adapted from a poem he'd written with the original idea of turning it into a children's book. While I happily talked down Disney in my Frankenweenie review, I should redress the balance by talking them up here, because this Dr Seuss inspired poem is the weakest part of the film. Julie Hickson, a Disney executive, and Tom Wilhite, the company's head of creative development, saw potential in Burton and his 'rather unique talent' as the book Burton on Burton puts it. Maybe they saw the potential of the poem too, once animated and well recited, maybe they just wanted a stop motion test or to see what Burton could do with creative freedom, but that shot deserves credit.

Burton seized the opportunity and his four man crew knocked the film out in two months. There was a fifth player, of course, one as inextricably linked to the piece as Burton himself, who wrote seven year old Vincent Malloy autobiographically so deeply that the character even looks like him. It's Vincent Price, who reads Burton's poem with his unmistakeable voice. Given that we learn in verse one that Vincent Malloy dearly wants to be Vincent Price, there's a self referential charm to the piece, aided by frequent references to his career, from House of Wax to the Edgar Allan Poe pictures. Malloy plunges headlong into the world of the macabre in a heartfelt attempt to emulate his hero and Price has a blast bringing him to life. The text is basic AABB rhyme without too much care given to the meter but, as Price could clearly wring charm out of reading an instruction manual, it's no trouble for him whatsoever to elevate this material.
The excellent animation helps too. That crew of four included animator Rick Heinrichs; Steven Chiodo, a stop motion animator; and cameraman Victor Abdalov, in addition to Burton himself. Ignoring the American influences of most of Burton's films, like the Universal horrors, Corman pictures and fifties monster movies, they surely sourced this from the silent expressionist films made in Germany in the twenties. That this is silent, but for the narration, aids that, as does the choice to shoot in black and white and the psychological sweep of the poem that surpasses its language. Burton claims that he hadn't seen The Cabinet of Dr Caligari before making this and if that's true, its angles must have filtered through to him by cultural osmosis. It's good spooky fun, and Price deserves the last word. He described Vincent as 'the most gratifying thing that ever happened. It was immortality: better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.'

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