SHORT: FRANKENWEENIE (1984)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: Barrett Oliver, Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern

PLOT: A young boy reanimates his recently deceased dog, but the undead pet is not a hit with

Still from Frankenweenie (1984)

the neighbors.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird; in fact, it’s an extremely conventional, if awfully charming, Frankenstein parody.

COMMENTS: Tim Burton’s second effort is a surprisingly fluid and assured bit of storytelling that attracted some remarkable talent for a short film, most notably a post-Shining Shelley Duvall (who had some sort of sixth sense for locating and working for offbeat auteurs) as Mom Frankenstein.  Dad Daniel Stern was an established thespian who would go on to greater fame as a voice actor.  Actor/director (Death Race 2000) appears briefly as the science teacher who puts the idea of resurrecting the dog in young Victor Frankenstein’s mind when he demonstrates how to make an ex-frog’s legs jump by applying electrodes.  Despite the ability Burton demonstrated here to attract and manage top talent, Disney famously dropped the ball and fired him after seeing Frankenweenie, without letting him try his hand at a feature, complaining that the film was too scary and a waste of resources.  In hindsight, it’s difficult to see why shortsighted Disney execs thought that Burton was too weird and dark to work for the Mouse.  It’s hard to imagine anyone thought this childhood farce would give any but the most overprotected weenie kid nightmares.  (More likely, the studio believed that anyone who would voluntarily shoot a featurette in black and white was not to be trusted).  The subject matter is only mildly offbeat—it’s a cute, clockwork parody of Frankenstein, a acknowledged classic.  There are laughs that are mildly morbid—when stitched-together Sparky springs a leak the first time he laps from his water bowl, or when Dad Frankenstein muses, “I guess we can’t punish Victor for bringing Sparky back from the dead,” but nothing alienatingly weird.  The directorial style is utterly traditional: the musical cues come at the expected moments, and when you see Victor playing fetch with his dog Sparky by rolling a ball out onto the suburban street, you almost groan at the pedestrian foreshadowing.  That’s not to say the movie is bad; in fact, it’s charming in its familiarity.  Kids enjoy it, but not half as much as boomer grownups nostalgic for their “monster kid” days when they used to stay up late on weekends and watch Zacherley or Ghoulardi host a Frankenstein marathon.  It’s a droll adult view of a child’s eye view of a James Whale nightmare.

Burton has been promising to remake the short as a full-length, stop-motion animated feature for years.  A release date is tentatively set for 2012 but the project doesn’t appear to have progressed beyond the planning stages.  In the meantime the original short is available, together with the short Vincent, on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Frankenweenie captures perfectly the spirit of whimsy mixed with the grotesque that typifies the Burton oeuvre.”–Deeky Wentworth, Surfin’ Dead (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Maxwell Stewart.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “SHORT: FRANKENWEENIE (1984)”

  1. The 2012 animated feature remake wasn’t weird enough to merit a separate review, but it was a great-looking movie and a welcome return to the cute-grotesque, scary-sweet style that won Burton so many admirers in his early career.

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