In 1984 while working for Disney, Tim Burton created a half-hour, black & white, live-action film about a boy’s love for his dog as perhaps only he could imagine it. In a tale closely following the 1931 Universal Frankenstein, young Victor’s dog Sparky gets hit by a car, so he takes inspiration from his science class to bring the beloved pet back to life. Burton was fired from Disney for his efforts.
Twenty-eight years later, Disney invited him back to expand the project into a full-length, stop-motion feature.
With as much time as Burton has spent focusing on remakes and re-imaginings lately, it feels very refreshing to see him put out something of his own again, even if it is a reworking of his own material. Frankenweenie is possibly his best effort since the 1990s. Still, he’s not entirely out of the derivative woods with this one, either.
The twist on Frankenstein is, of course, the primary gimmick. I don’t fault Burton one iota for that. But what separates this self-remake from the original more than the runtime or change of medium is the barrage of other film references this movie is packed with. Some of them, like E. Gore and the Bride-of-Frankenstein poodle, are essential. Others are central to the plot: all the kids’ creations pay tribute to classic monsters, the Mummy, the Wolfman(rat), the Invisible Man (goldfish), even Gamera (the turtle-monster from the Godzilla films).
It’s almost impossible to comment on the quality of the animation. It is, in a word, perfect. Taking a lesson learned from Corpse Bride—that stop-motion can actually be too fluid (many critics and fans were convinced it was CGI)—Burton deliberately chose to make this film’s animation slightly more crude, to charming effect. The technique is paired with black & white photography which, as far as I know, hasn’t been done since it was the only option, and the film is set in the same indistinct mid-20th century setting that some of Burton’s earlier films resided in. Once again, Burton teamed up with Danny Elfman for the musical score. While I can’t say that this score left any particular impressions on me, it is suited to the action and helps drive the pace. In combination, the aesthetic choices achieve a sense of timelessness that suits the film well and portends for it a good future.
(BTW, the 1984 original short is, inexplicably, not included in releases of the full-length feature. Instead, it is included with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Oh, and HERE if you’re interested.)