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).
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.
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.
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.
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