Sunday 20 January 2013

Frankenweenie (1984)

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and Barret Oliver

With Tim Burton's Frankenweenie released on DVD this month, it seems like an appropriate time to highlight that it's an animated remake of a live action short that he shot back in 1984. Not only is it a pretty close remake, with the story merely expanded to feature length and fleshed out a bit more, but there's a glorious irony in the fact that it's doing pretty well for distributor, Walt Disney Pictures, the company which fired Burton after he made the original short. Back then, they saw it as a waste of company resources, far too scary for the young audiences who would see it play as a supporting piece to their theatrical reissue of Pinocchio. Perhaps this was all an excuse to avoid bringing up an unhappy working relationship. After all, it fits well with the other original films he'd made for them: the glorious but even more morbid Vincent and a take on Hansel and Gretel that was infused with Japanese culture and shown precisely once on the Disney channel at Halloween.

So realistically, Disney had no idea what to do with Burton. It must have stuck in their craw that he went on to great success, both on a cult level with Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and with blockbusters like Batman and Batman Returns. Above anything else, Disney is a business and so they were open to discussions in 1990 when he came to them with ideas for a feature length stop motion musical based on a poem he'd written in 1982 while working for them. They still baulked at releasing The Nightmare Before Christmas as a Disney picture, being yet another dark tale that they saw as too scary for kids, so it was released under the Touchstone Pictures banner instead. Quite when they came to the realisation that the best children's films are accessible to adults and reflect a little more darkness than the soporific fare they're used to, I have no idea, but that is Disney above the title on the Frankenweenie remake.
The original Frankenweenie is a long short film, around thirty minutes, and it's live action, with many names and faces you'll recognise. Young Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist, is played by Barret Oliver, riding high after The NeverEnding Story; his parents, Susan and Ben, are Shelley Duvall, a major star after The Shining, and Daniel Stern, who at this point was mostly known for Diner. They're a happy family with an imaginative son, devoted enough to his bull terrier, Sparky, to feature him in his home made monster movies. One opens the film in the style of the Donald F Glut fan films, featuring pterodactyls, a volcano and Sparky dressed up as a giant lizard. It's good fun, as is everything until Sparky runs out into the road to retrieve a baseball and promptly gets hit by a car. Everything here, the home movie, the collision, the graveyard scene where Sparky is laid to rest, is so quintessential Burton that it's hard to imagine Disney not seeing a future in it.

Perhaps it's where it goes next that they had issues with. Victor is inspired by Mr Walsh's class demonstration of electricity generating muscle movement in a dead frog, but it is a little morbid for Disney. He reads up on the subject and builds a decent junior equivalent of a mad scientist's laboratory in the attic, complete with a movable platform to raise his dead dog into the heavens to harness the power of lightning during a storm. Yeah, I can totally see Disney execs fearing a spate of lawsuits drawn from copycat behaviour gone wrong and, while they were attempting to expand into mature filmmaking with movies like Something Wicked This Way Comes, a boy raising his dog from the dead is, frankly, a heck of an expansion. Their reaction must have been similar to that of Victor's neighbours when Sparky gets out and, if you've ever seen a Burton movie and a Frankenstein picture, you'll have a pretty good idea what that looks like.
I really enjoyed Frankenweenie, but then I was a weird kid who always wanted more than Disney could ever offer. It didn't have to be gothic, per se, it just had to have a lot more substance than cutesy singing teapots could ever provide. Looking back, I wanted Studio Ghibli without knowing that animation was even made in Japan, let alone who Hayao Miyazaki was. From the early shorts I've seen from Tim Burton, Vincent reigns supreme because of its oddball charm and the glorious narration by Vincent Price, even though it cost a fraction of this one. Yet Frankenweenie can't be ignored. It's a film to enjoy over and over, even without added perspective from what Burton went on to. That adds much, as there's a great deal of Edward Scissorhands here, both in the tone and the style. Given that Burton's script for that film was primarily autobiographical, it's not surprising to discover that it wasn't really the first time he'd written a character around himself.

The flaws are few and far between and most of them are inherent to the material and the running time. The script works well as a riff on the Universal version of Frankenstein, but perhaps it does so a little closer than it should, especially during the finalé. In some ways there's as much James Whale here as there is Tim Burton. The length is an awkward one, allowing the story more time to grow than is usual for a short film but nowhere near what a feature can offer. The hardest flaw to forgive is the casting of Sofia Coppola as the neighbour's daughter, Anne. She's a highly regarded writer and director, who won an Oscar for writing Lost in Translation, but she's certainly no actor. This was the first film she acted in not to be directed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, and I'm only surprised that Burton cast her. No wonder she went on to a Razzie for The Godfather Part III. Sparky is much more watchable, as I'm sure his animated version will be when I catch up with it.

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