Revisiting: Frankenweenie (1984)
Tim Burton’s original Frankenstein tribute is lovingly constructed, despite its troubled past
It’s hard to know what Disney were thinking when they took on Tim Burton in 1979. Freshly graduated from CalArts (alongside future Pixar bods John Lasseter and Brad Bird, as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick), Burton had already shown a flair for the macabre with his mad scientist cartoon Stalk of the Celery Monster. This was followed in 1982 by stop motion short Vincent, in which a young boy dreams of becoming a maniacal villain in the Vincent Price mould. So the studio shouldn’t really have been surprised when, two years later, Burton delivered the thirty-minute live action short Frankenweenie.
A love letter to (and parody of) Mary Shelley’s most infamous creation, the film tells the story of suburban American schoolboy Victor Frankenstein (Barret Oliver), who is left heartbroken when his beloved pooch Sparky dies under the wheels of a car. After learning about the potentially regenerative properties of electricity in a school science class, Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse and succeeds in bringing him back to life. Victor’s neighbours are none too pleased to discover the reanimated hound, though, and form an angry mob, determined to hunt the inventor and his creation down.
Frankenweenie is obviously the work of a filmmaker still getting to grips with his craft, but is hugely enjoyable nontheless. The main parts of Victor, his mother (Shelley Duvall) and father (Daniel Stern) are well acted, even if some of the dialogue is clunky (Duvall is especially overburdened in this department). As with the best in Burton’s catalogue, the film’s main strength lies in the director’s skill in creating a unique, gothic universe for his characters: Sparky’s graveyard, littered with crucifixes made of dog bones, is a recognisable precursor to The Nightmare Before Christmas’s sepulchral landscape, and Burton neatly transplanted Frankenweenie’s mad scientist/suburban mob tropes into Edward Scissorhands six years later. His love for the source material is also evident: while James Whale’s 1931 monster met his end in a burning windmill, Sparky dies (again) in a flaming mini-golf windmill, but not before saving his creator from a similar fate. The mob, recognising the dog’s heroism, swiftly bring him back using car batteries and jump leads, and boy and dog live happily ever after.
Unfortunately for Burton, this happy ending wasn’t enough to placate the House of Mouse, who
deemed the short too dark and scary for children and sacked Burton for wasting company resources. It’s a mystery why Burton was given access to such resources in the first place – the film was budgeted at $1million, and featured an impressive cast in Oliver (fresh from The NeverEnding Story), Stern (fresh from mainstream success in Diner) and Duvall (still reasonably fresh from 1980’s The Shining, if not so much the same year’s Popeye). In any case, it was nine years before the studio made amends, welcoming back Burton (and pal Selick) for 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Suitably, Disney are also the studio behind Burton’s latest work – the feature-length, black and white, stop motion story of a boy named Victor and a dog named Sparky.