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Burtonjuice: Thoughts on Frankenweenie (The Original)

BURTONJUICE... on Thursday nights we're looking at Tim Burton films chronologically. Previously we covered his early shorts including the perfect goth calling card in Vincent (1982).

a boy and his dog. til death do they part

As you may have heard Tim Burton is currently rethinking Frankenweenie as a feature film. The Frankenstein story is so familiar as a myth that its ripe for either riffing on and spoofing in. But the short film is so successful at 29 minutes that it's strange to imagine it padded with another hour of footage. I thought I'd type up "things I didn't remember about the original Frankenweenie" but realized that the list would be far far too long as I didn't remember a single thing beyond the premise, that it was in black and white, and that particular boy (Barret Oliver, a major child star in the 80s. What became of him?) and his dead doggie. More after the jump...

The film begins with a film within the film. Just as Vincent and later surely Lydia in Beetlejuice and Edward in Edward Scissorhands were proxy characters for the young wild-headed auteur, so is Victor Frankenstein in Frankenweenie. He's played by the talented 80s child star Barrett Oliver (what became of him?) who is introduced to us as a filmmaker. "My son is another Hitchcock!" his dad proclaims while watching the home movie which stars Victor's dog Sparky in a monster costume.

Victor's filmmaking shows great imagination if crude skill. Burton's got both imagination and skill to spare this early in his career. Black and white suits Burton. It contains him enough to sharpen his image-making rather than muddy it - the fate that's befallen some of his later gaudier color-drenched films. There are wonderful designs here like the pet cemetary, the round burial hills, the disintegrating windmill, the dog's eye view of kitchen tile, and many more. And it's not just the visuals that work. The actors are fun, too and Shelley Duvall is always welcome as a spacy mom.

Two of the clever visuals: a pet sematary, the idea forming

One of the great things about early works by major filmmakers is that they rarely feel over-indulged even if they're absolutely tied up in all of the director's peculiar obsessions. Frankenweenie doesn't dawdle. By the 6 minute mark we've already absorbed the boy's home life, his interests, and his love for his dog. And the dog has already died. And the boy has already gotten the idea to revive him! From there we're treated to a funny, superbly visualized film which lays down ideas and obsessions which Tim Burton will return to again and again like the scientist's mad laboratory, superstitous and easily excitable suburbanites, mob mentality vs. the misfit, and the interchangeability of spookiness and cuteness.

In some ways the remake and expansion of Frankenweenie might feel as redundant as the opening titles of Victor's film "Sparky as the monster from long ago... in The Monster From Long Ago".

We know it'll be bigger. Burton always goes big now.

But part of Frankenweenie's great charm is its simplicity. He's already expanded and reworked this material in several ways within Edward Scissorhands (1990).That feature also features a scientific experiment to create/revive a loved one who is perceived as dangerous but is actually loving. It also ends with the mob chasing the harmless misfit to his castle (here its sized for a doggie in the form of a miniature gold windmill) and the misfit saving the life of the one he loves. Frankenweenie gets a happier ending than Edward. When the townsfolk see Sparky's sacrifice to save his boy they join in the Frankenstein project to revive him again with the electricity from all of their cars. 

Give it more juice!"

Sparky sparks again. He's alive! B+

The dog will be revived a third time when the animated remake Frankenweenie hits movie screens this October. Burton will certainly give the feature version more juice. Let's hope it's still as sweet.

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Reader Comments (2)

Love Frankenweenie! I'm disappointed that the animated version doesn't look the same though since that sorta dog looks so unique with this sloping head. Still looking forward to it though! Interesting that and "Paranorman" are coming out this year. Hmmm. Between those and "Arietty" maybe we're looking at an animated feature Oscar roster that isn't predominantly computer animated.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

@Glenn: and also Pirates Bands of Misfit if you ask me.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet
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