July 25, 2013
FRANKENWEENIE (1984) - Tim Burton's original short
While I enjoyed the new, re-animated Frankenweenie in many ways, the original live-action short film remains one of Tim Burton's very best.
Just under half an hour long is all it takes for a compact retelling of Universal's classic Frankenstein (1931), staged in a slightly surreal corner of suburban California. Victor loves his pet dog Sparky, but after it's accidentally killed, the only thing that can lift the young boy out of his depression, is the possibility that he can bring his dog back from the dead...
At the time, Tim Burton had made something a little too weird for Disney to handle. It was certainly out of step with the studio's image at the time - they didn't even have a 'spooky Halloween' attitude to horror yet. So it snuck out as a support feature and disappeared from sight only until Tim Burton had left Disney and then had hits with Batman and Edward Scissorhands. Only then did Frankenweenie emerge from Disney's vaults to appear on home video (see the VHS cover above). I've heard this was slightly censored, but I've not yet done a comparison viewing.
Frankenweenie then appeared more proudly as an extra feature on laserdisc, DVD and blu-ray releases of A Nightmare Before Christmas, when Disney finally 'got' Burton and embraced a slightly darker side. I'm glad it's always been available, but without being displayed as part of the cover art, it's never really gained it's own identity. So much so, that the 2012 feature-length animated version looks like a new idea, rather than an expanded remake.
Even if you've seen the new film, the original short is certainly worth a visit. The ending is very different and live-action has far more emotional impact. The humour is more adult, with in-jokes about Hitchcock, and a super subversion of a famous scene from In Cold Blood. The characters are almost all changed. It's the same core story, but set in an alternate, Edward Scissorhands universe.
Considering this Frankenweenie was made before any of Burton's feature films, it's already consistent with the design and themes of his next several films. There's a shot of Sparky running off down the street that prefigures Edward Scissorhands, a wooden tower that echoes Batman's belfry climax, electric Christmas decoration reindeer anticipate A Nightmare Before Christmas, and there's a familiar-looking giant Felix cathead before they appeared as a motif in Batman Returns...
A young Barret Oliver milks far more tears for the death of his dog, and of course it's more icky to see a real youngster run off to the pet cemetery to dig him up again. Frankenweenie was released the same year as Oliver's most famous film The NeverEnding Story.
His mum and dad are played by Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern. Duvall had just had a great run with The Shining, Robert Altman's Popeye and a cameo in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits. Stern had recently done Diner and Blue Thunder, but was still years away from major recognition for Home Alone. The pair play the comedy suitably straight, setting the tone of normality before their son's mad science disrupts the neighbourhood.
Delightfully, it's Paul Bartel who plays the pivotal role as the science teacher, introducing Victor to the rejuvenating powers of electricity. At the time, he was making a string of cameos in other people's productions, but usually non-mainstream movies (Piranha, White Dog, Chopping Mall). Perhaps his films as a director are better known - Bartel was between Eating Raoul and Lust In The Dust. Though Death Race 2000 will always be his greatest film.
Bizarrely, the spoilt, Barbie-obsessed girl next door, a kid-who-doesn't-understand-weirder-kids, is played by young Sofia Coppola! Credited under her stage name 'Domino', she was only thirteen at the time.
The only thing I will say against the Frankenweenie short, is that the music is lacking. If only he'd found Danny Elfman a little earlier, this desperately needs him!
I think the new version overdoes the references to Universal's Frankenstein, with characters looking like Dwight Frye and Boris Karloff. But it's wonderful to see model animation, in gorgeous black-and-white, and tons more b-movie monster homages.