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Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie is a 26-minute long black-and-white Disney live action short that was not quite, as far as I can tell, a Summer of 1985 release. It was made in 1984, planned to play with a re-release of THE JUNGLE BOOK that summer, then production was delayed, moving it to PINOCCHIO in December, but when it received a PG rating they couldn’t play it with a G-rated movie, so it got shelved until playing with only the U.K. release of BABY: THE SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND. I couldn’t find proof of a date, but if it was the same as the U.S. then it was in March of ’85.

But I decided it was an important backstory to fill in, because it keeps coming up. It was one of the projects then-25-year-old Disney artist Tim Burton switched to after the company didn’t use any of his designs for THE BLACK CAULDRON. It was the short they considered releasing with MY SCIENCE PROJECT. And it was what brought Burton to the attention of Paul Reubens to direct a classic Summer of 1985 movie we’ll be discussing tomorrow.

It’s a simple story. Barret Oliver (D.A.R.Y.L.) plays Victor Frankenstein, a normal suburban kid who enjoys making Super-8 monster movies with his dog Sparky. But one day while playing fetch, Sparky is run over by a car – off screen, in a beautifully crafted sequence of visual storytelling that ends with a baseball rolling to the curb and Victor rising to his feet in shock.

Victor is depressed, but his science teacher (Paul Bartel, FOLLOW THAT BIRD, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION) demonstrates the effects of electrical current on a dead frog in class, giving Victor the idea to revive his dead dog. He secretly digs up Sparky’s body from the pet cemetery and builds a FRANKENSTEIN-style laboratory in the attic using a toaster, a set of reindeer lawn decorations, spinning bicycle wheels, etc. With a pair of swings he raises the body to the roof during a thunder storm and yes, somehow brings him back to life. (It’s never explained why Sparky seems to have a few parts taken from some other dead dog, sewn on with theatrically thick black stitches).

Burton loves those spirals.

Like Elliot in E.T. (which also head a dead frog science class scene), Victor pretends to be sick to stay home from school and play with his secret otherworldly friend while the parents – played by Daniel Stern (C.H.U.D.) and Shelley Duvall (POPEYE) – are away. But Sparky sneaks off and scares some of the neighbors, including Mr. Chambers (Joseph Maher, THE EVIL THAT MEN DO), his daughter Anne (Domino, THE COTTON CLUB), and Rose Epstein (Roz Braverman), a round-spectacled living cartoon of a person who pretty much spends the rest of the movie shrieking “He tried to eat my Raymond!”

(Raymond, strangely, is a weiner dog, which Frankenweenie himself is not.)

When Victor’s parents discover that he’s brought his dog back to life, they’re cool enough to be happy about it (he’s their dog too, after all) and invite all the neighbors over to see that he’s nothing to be afraid of, but it backfires and they end up chasing him onto a mini-golf course where he climbs into a miniature windmill and re-enacts the finale of FRANKENSTEIN. I love the humorous awkwardness of one of the neighbors holding up a lighter like he can’t see very well, then randomly falling and starting a dangerous fire. Victor is trapped inside until Sparky drags him to safety in plain view of everyone, and they all change their minds about him.

There generally aren’t punchlines per se, just cute little deadpan jokes like the way Sparky’s stitched-together neck springs leaks when he drinks from his water dish, or a poodle approaching him with fur resembling The Bride’s iconic beehive hairdo, or just the ridiculous way Rose’s hose wiggles around when she drops it in abject terror at the sight of a small dog. Mostly the humor is in the world Burton creates – the clever ways he restages gothic horror with child-accessible household objects and locations. Just as WEIRD SCIENCE reimagined the FRANKENSTEIN creation sequence for horny teenage computer nerds, Burton brings it to the world of a kid mourning his dead pet. For Hughes it’s about making the idea cool to modern kids, but Burton seems more interested in making an impression of the feeling and mood of old movies as a timeless symbol for youthful emotions.

Unsurprisingly, Burton creates a knockout visual style and non-jokey atmosphere, with beautiful black and white cinematography by Thomas Ackerman (NEW YEAR’S EVIL), and veteran Disney art director John B. Mansbridge (THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY, THE LOVE BUG, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, PETE’S DRAGON, TRON) and set decorator Roger M. Shook (THE BLACK HOLE, THE DEVIL AND MAX DEVLIN) do a seamless job of merging reality with Burton’s drawing style.

I mean, come on.

The story is (quite obviously, in retrospect) by Burton, adapted by Lenny Ripps, a writer from Bosom Buddies and The Star Wars Holiday Special. I’m guessing Ripps might’ve gotten the job because of his work on the 1982 TV special 13 THIRTEENTH AVENUE, which IMDb describes as “A comedy about a group of classic monsters sharing an apartment, their misadventures, and their interaction with each other and their therapist.” Though I have no research to back that up.

It’s not Burton’s first live action short – the much cheaper looking 45-minute Hansel and Gretel ran one time on the Disney Channel on Halloween, 1983 – but it’s still impressive how much of his later style and obsessions are already in evidence here. The cartoony model pet cemetery in the opening credits predicts THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, some of the neighbor characters look and act straight out of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, as do the carefully curated props (toucan pitcher, Goofy trike, Wolfman mug, cookie jar with a face), the gothic wrought iron gate and windmill of the mini-golf course later echo in settings like the abandoned zoo in BATMAN RETURNS.

And more than that, the story seems like a rough draft for EDWARD SCISSORHANDS: the comedic juxtaposition of gothic horror imagery and a suburb full of middle aged people in exaggerated ‘60s and ‘70s fashions, a family causing a scandal by bringing in a Frankenstein’s monster character, complete with the neighborhood get-together meant to introduce him to everyone and the misunderstanding that leads to a dramatic showdown in a gothic tower on a hill (albeit a very small one). This version ends in understanding, though, instead of tragedy and longing.

Because it’s such a fully formed version of the Tim Burton we would soon know, the one thing missing is very noticeable: he hadn’t met Danny Elfman yet. The score by Michael Convertino (HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD) and David Newman (CRITTERS) is perfectly fine and sounds like an old horror movie, but it’s noticeably less moving, bombastic and catchy than an Elfman score. Even without that you’re looking at an unmistakable directorial vision right here. Imagine a world where a guy made this movie and never got another gig. That could’ve happened!

With Disney struggling to solidify a post-Walt identity, and undergoing an iffy change in leadership (see THE BLACK CAULDRON), it’s no surprise that they didn’t know what the fuck to do with a somewhat morbid almost half hour long black and white live action short. But luckily they gave it a limited release in L.A. for Oscar qualification, so word got around the industry. Meanwhile, Paul Reubens was preparing PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and needed to find a director fast or be stuck with a studio choice he didn’t feel comfortable with. Asking around at a party, his friend Lisa Henson – daughter of Jim, and a Warner Brothers executive at the time – had a holy shit moment realizing she had seen this short by an up and coming director who would be a perfect match.

The rest is history, of course. Frankenweenie made Burton a director and Burton being a director made Frankenweenie more of a commodity. In the early ‘90s they released it as a standalone VHS tape, it later became an extra on DVDs and Blu-Rays of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and now it can be streamed on Disney+. I bet more people have seen it now than have seen BABY. Sometimes the right things happen. It just takes a while.

NOTES:

Summer of 1985 connections:

Obviously you’ve got your Barrett Oliver and Paul Bartel connections. Art director John B. Mansbridge also did MY SCIENCE PROJECT. A few would carry over to Burton’s feature debut: bit player Jason Hervey and associate producer Rick Heinrichs (moving to visual effects).

Like WEIRD SCIENCE, EXPLORERS and MY SCIENCE PROJECT, this is a story of kids (in this case one solitary kid) secretly performing an outlandish experiment that shatters reality. And like THE GOONIES it combines a depiction of modern life (in this case a very stylized depiction) with a throwback to an older style of movie. But I don’t think it uses nostalgia in the same way as other Summer of 1985 movies. For sure it’s very personal to Burton’s own childhood in Burbank, and the fashions of the neighbors show a fascination with the past like BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE HEAVENLY KID. But I think Burton was too young to want to make a statement about his parents’ generation or the good old days, and did not go on to show much interest in that sort of thing in his subsequent career.

Since he was just starting out, he’s of a younger generation than most of the Summer of 1985 filmatists in question. He’s 6 years younger than Robert Zemeckis, 8 years younger than John Hughes, 12 years younger than Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg, 28 years younger than Richard Donner, but a couple weeks older than Chris Columbus. Of those, I think he’s closest to Dante in mentality – a Monster Kid, making sure the kids in his movies are the same. But I think Dante just thinks monsters are cool, while Burton has a deep emotional connection to feeling like a monster. And also thinks they’re cool.

Legacy:

I mean, obviously without this there might never have been big time movie director Tim Burton. We’d have missed out on some original visions, BATMAN might’ve been made by some boring normal directcor, the entire era of ‘90s comic book movies might never had happened, and the shelves of Hot Topic would’ve been half empty.

Shelley Duvall really liked Burton, and two years later he directed the “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp” episode of her series Faerie Tale Theatre. I’m surprised they didn’t work together more after that.

Domino, who plays blond neighbor girl Anne Chambers and has the classic line “Barbie, you are not working hard enough!” while doing her aerobics workout, went on to appear in STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE as one of Queen Amidala’s handmaidens. She also wrote and directed THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, LOST IN TRANSLATION, MARIE ANTOINETTE, SOMEWHERE, THE BLING RING, A Very Murray Christmas, THE BEGUILED and the upcoming ON THE ROCKS.

After his decades of success, Disney had a more positive attitude toward throwing piles of money at Burton, so together they remade Frankenweenie as a feature length stop motion film, released in 2012. This time there was an Elfman score, and the voice cast included other collaborators he’d gathered over his career like Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder and Conchata Ferrell. Original short producer Rick Heinrichs graduated to production designer, having done same for SLEEPY HOLLOW, PLANET OF THE APES and DARK SHADOWS (not to mention FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, HULK, LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2 and 3). Though cruder and lower budget than Burton’s other stop motion films THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and THE CORPSE BRIDE, it’s a beautiful looking film, retaining the black and white look and faithfully recreating Burton’s drawing style in lumpy three dimensional models.

But I have to say – I like the short version way better! One way they added to the concept was by making all of his classmates different types of horror characters who create their own monsters. Ryder plays “Elsa Van Helsing,” and Atticus Shaffer (AN AMERICAN CAROL) is crazy-lab-assistant “Edward ‘E’ Gore.” To me it kind of takes away from the idea of one kid imagining his life so dramatic that he’s doctor Frankenstein, and turns it more into some corny Saturday morning cartoon joke.

It also really bothered me that there’s a preachy message involving the teacher (Landau doing sort of a Vincent Price imitation) being frustrated that the people of the town are small-minded and believe in junk science. It’s a nice message and timely and all that, but it really rubbed me the wrong way to have that in a movie where we’re pretending electrical currents bring dead animals to life or transform them into monsters. It’s just not the appropriate story for that particular lecture, I feel.

Still, it’s great that Burton was able to make it. In a way, his entire career happened because he wanted to make a stop motion Frankenstein dog movie and didn’t have the budget, so he made it different and became a huge director and then when he had enough clout he finally did it the way he wanted. That’s so much better than the alternate timeline where he sticks to being an animator at Disney like Andreas Deja did, figures out how to fit in, works on THE LITTLE MERMAID and all that stuff and then is sort of forced into retirement when Disney doesn’t do hand drawn animation anymore.

Come to think of it, it’s crazy that Burton worked at Disney for four years and, other than some in-betweening on THE FOX AND THE HOUND, the stuff he made was everything but the drawn animation Disney’s business was based on. How did he even end up doing a stop motion short? Had anyone there done that before? People following their own path like that, that’s what makes the world good, in my opinion.

Don’t hook up electricity to dead dogs though

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 11th, 2020 at 2:38 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Family, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Frankenweenie”

  1. Proof positive that EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is a better film if you cut it by an hour and cast a dog as the main character.

    Mean jokes aside, it’s worth noting that NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is *not*, despite the popular conception, a Tim Burton movie. It was neither directed nor written by him (though it is based, extremely loosely, on some drawings he did). It was actually directed by Henry Selick, who would later go on to do JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and CORALINE. Tim Burton *did* direct THE CORPSE BRIDE, which is not a very good movie.

  2. Kurgan – Burton has claimed he had a lot more involvement on NIGHTMARE than that. He explained the difference between it and his director credit on CORPSE BRIDE (forgive me I’ve lost the source – I think it was in an AV Club interview) as being that he did a lot more on the concept and pre-production work on NIGHTMARE and then handed off the directing reigns, while with CB a lot more of that stuff was being figured out during production. But who knows if what name-brand artists say is true?

    One thing that did happen on NIGHTMARE is Burton and Danny Elfman had a big falling out (the reason Howard Shore scored ED WOOD). Elfman felt his song-track was essentially co-scripting the movie, and then he felt further slighted by Burton putting his own name in the title.

    Anyway, sorry to derail. This FRANKENWEENIE short is pretty entertaining.

  3. I don’t mean to imply he had *nothing* to do with the movie- he was absolutely instrumental in getting it made and, by the time it came out, was certainly the biggest name attached to the project. But I see the movie mentioned as one of “his” all the time, and he just didn’t really have anything to do with the actual production of it once filming was underway. This was being made while Burton was doing BATMAN RETURNS and ED WOOD, and stop-motion is so time-intensive a process that he simply wouldn’t have physically had time to be there.

  4. I believe that is basically true, in addition to the designs NIGHTMARE was based on a Burton poem. He claimed Disney put his name in the title for branding, which seems plausible.

    I don’t think Burton had much involvement in his next Selick collaboration, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, which certainly could have used some Elfman, as I feel Randy Newman’s weak songs leave a big hole in the centre of the film.

    Burton’s original doodles for Frankenwheenie were very similar to the dog he designed for FAMILY DOG, which had the effect of making the 2012 film feel like an unexpected FAMILY DOG revival.

  5. That opening sequence really is amazing filmmaking, including the “get to know the characters through their voices” prelude.

  6. I’m aware that Henry Selick is the director of NIGHTMARE and that he’s a genius and very much deserves credit for its greatness, but I think trying to downplay Burton in that movie is like saying “Well, George Lucas didn’t direct RETURN OF THE JEDI.” It’s so much Burton’s idea, his style, his humor, his emotion. It’s what he was working toward since those Disney days, not just literally because he conceived it then, but because he continued experimenting with stop motion and the themes of the story over many years. It’s much more like Burton’s other work than Selick’s other work, even though it has both of them in it.

    As for Selick, it’s too bad he hasn’t found a way to work more regularly. He seems to hate Burton, who he thinks didn’t protect him from the suits on JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (and also something about stealing animators for MARS ATTACKS!, who ended up then getting laid off when they had to switch to CG). But I’m not sure why he left Laika. Now he’s doing a movie with Key and Peele, but it’s for Netflix so it probly won’t play theaters (if there are any left).

  7. Can’t remember much of it, maybe I rewatch it later today, but man, did the animated version piss me off! Simply because of what happened to the cat. It’s the only Burton movie that I refuse to own, because of this. (Yes, I even bought a used copy of ALICE for 2 bucks. [Still haven’t seen DUMBO and won’t rule out that this won’t be the other Burton movie that I refuse to own])

  8. The feature-length version felt like, if 1950s satire were a teabag, the movie was using one that had already brewed five cups of tea and then been left to dry out in the driveway for a couple days. Its satirical targets were so many steps removed from any form of recognizable reality that it was like someone made a parody of SPACEBALLS or something. Just totally toothless and flailing and obsolete. Like nostalgia for nostalgia itself. Man, you really took the homogenized nature of your own phony milieu down a peg, Burton. You don’t care whose toes you step on!

  9. Burton is one of those guys who twists my brain into knots when I try to come to a conclusion about him. My instinct is to say I haven’t liked him since his earlier stuff, but just a glance at his filmography shows me that’s not exactly true.

    He’s certainly not a slam dunk like I thought he was before, say, Planet of the Apes, or maybe even before Mars Attacks, but even the stuff I don’t much like (Apes, Dark Shadows, Peculiar Children all spring quickly to mind, but sadly they’re not exclusive) have things going for them. He’s done little, if anything, that I out and out reject, though I haven’t seen Dumbo yet.

    I Guess I do flat out reject Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I tend to blame my disdain on it being one of the most unnecessary remakes of all time (along with his Apes movie, perhaps), and just not a very good movie at that. But it might have as much to do with how insufferable Johnny Depp became to me around that time.

    But I still like Sweeney Todd (yep, me — I’m that one sole lonely guy you may have heard about who liked Sweeney Todd), so I’m going with the former explanation rather than the Depp one.

    In sum, I have zero expectations for anything Burton does anymore, but I’m still hopeful. And Frankenweenie was pretty darned good!…Even if the name alone MIGHT be a little too silly for my taste.

  10. I’ve only seen short Frankenweenie, though!

  11. Johnny- I think SWEENY TODD isn’t bad! It makes some weird omissions in adapting the show and Depp isn’t really a strong enough singer for the part, but Burton does a great job with the grand guiginol aspect of the piece and it made me wish he had done a more straight-ahead horror film with no irony at some point.

    Also on the topic of Original Frankenweenie, that scene where the dog initially dies is indeed really well done. I haven’t seen the movie in decades but still remember that moment vividly.

  12. Wasn’t SWEENEY TODD really well received at the time? I just remember it was not the type of musical I can get into, and that I was impressed by the amount and quality of blood spray.

  13. Sweeney Todd was well received by critics. I just never spoke to anyone in real life who liked it!

  14. Yeah Sweeney Todd was considered kind of a return to Gothic form for Burton after his previous three. I personally loved it. I’m not a big musical fan and saw some of the original on Youtube because I have so many theatre nerd friends, but couldn’t get into the singing. I like that Burton made it darker, smaller and more interior…not BIG SINGING.

    Plus it was gorier and slasherier than just about any horror movie coming along that wasn’t just a torture porn.

  15. Kurgan I do agree with you, I’d love to see Burton do a horror movie…although him doing a straight movie with no irony is something that would never happen, it’s just not his style. But he needs to compete his Gothic Horror trilogy, which so far is Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd. That’s a pretty fucking good batting average in my opinion…all the mood and Hollywood resources, costumes, great actors and plenty of blood.

  16. I remember how weirded out I was, when most of the singing in SWEENEY TODD was basically just very fast talking, after the uproar about a false rumor that Sasha Baron Cohen would rap his songs.

  17. I must be the only one here who actually enjoyed the stop-motion Frankenweenie. I loved Martin Landau’s teacher, who I’ve thought a lot as schools have started opening up. The scene where he rips into the parents for being a bunch of clueless morons who don’t appreciate science seems applicable once again. I also love that he’s not one of those movie teachers that tries to be friendly and inspiring. He just does his thing, and he loves science. I always preferred teachers who just loved their subjects than those who tried to drop corny jokes.

    And I was surprised by how much I liked Dumbo. It might be my favorite of the live action Disney remakes, although I realize that’s a low bar. It helps that they run through the plot of the original movie pretty quickly, and then it gets to be its own thing. Burton’s more hit and miss these days, but I think there’s still some gas left in his tank.

  18. Um, actually, Frankenweenie refers to the boy and not the dog. The dog is Frankenweenie’s monster.

  19. Tragically we’ll never get Mad Landis’s VICTOR FRANKENWEENIE to set the story straight.

  20. I finally watched Burton’s DUMBO and guess what? It’s good! Not great, but a fun, little “underdogs Vs rich asshole” circus adventure, with an actually pretty exciting heist at the end. Although it was a bit of a WTF how the movie ditches the cartoon story at the end of the first act in the most checklist-esque way, to make room for a whole new story, in which Dumbo is more a MacGuffin than the protagonist. Thankfully I didn’t care. So, yeah, as cynical as the concept of the live action remakes of Disney’s classic cartoons is, so far they have been more hit than miss, although most hits weren’t homeruns either.

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