Watching films made by a filmmaker before they hit their
creative stride is interesting. Sometimes
you can see how drastically their method of storytelling changes (for better or
worse, that’s up to you), while there are those rare filmmakers that exude the
type of originality from the very beginning that will follow them throughout the rest of
their career. One such example is Tim
I have been an admirer of Burton’s work since I saw snippets
of his student animated film Stalk of the Celery Monster. From there, he began to work at Disney
Studios, animating such films as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron,
while also working on a number of short films.
The first being the now-classic Vincent, which was then followed by Frankenweenie,
an off-kilter take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Clocking in at around thirty minutes, it’s quite obvious
that Frankenweenie was made by a storyteller who loves monster movies. In fact, it’s a love letter to the Universal
pictures of the 40’s and 50’s, right down to the visual approach. It tells the story of young budding filmmaker
Victor Frankenstein and his dog Sparky, who, after a freak accident, is brought
back to life through means that are very similar to Shelley’s classic.
Frankenweenie is unabashedly a B-movie and that is why the
film works, even to this day. While
cheesy and downright goofy at times, it is a relatable story about a dreamer
and the lengths in which he will go to hold on to a loved one. Being a short film, the story moves at an
alarmingly breezy pace, but the child actors (including a young Sofia Coppola)
ground the film with a sort of tongue-in-cheek wonder that very few films can
achieve. What’s more, the casting of the
adults is impeccable. Who would have
thought that Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall would play such loving and warm
parents, all the while maintaining a sort of off-kilter behavior reserved for
some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone?
As is the case with any Tim Burton film, the art direction
and set design frequently take center stage.
Burton does a wonderful job at recreating James Whale’s black and white Frankenstein
world, while also injecting it with a modern twist, such as substituting the
windmill at the end of Frankenstein with a miniature windmill erected in a
What I find most beautiful is the way in which the film
addresses topics of prejudice and acceptance, topics that were considered taboo
at the time at Disney (who helped finance the film). As a result of the themes it addressed and a
number of disturbingly morbid moments (albeit nothing that hadn’t been seen
before), Frankenweenie was delegated to the festival circuit, where it
garnered a number of kudos for Burton.
After its festival run, the film was tucked away into the Disney vaults,
never to be seen again. That is, until a
young man by the name of Paul Reubens arrived, looking for someone to direct
the debut feature tailored for his alter ego Pee Wee Herman. After seeing Vincent and (especially) Frankenweenie,
Reubens knew he found the right storyteller for the job.
Today, due to the advent of DVD and Blu-Ray, Frankenweenie
is readily available for anyone interested in seeing a Burton film before “Tim
Burton” became a household name. It’s a
bold retelling, parody and homage to one of the greatest stories in horror
literature, while also being the film that catapulted its director into the madness
that is Hollywood. Whether or not Burton’s
proposed 3D feature length adaptation of Frankenweenie will ever come to
fruition is beside the point. In its
current state, it is the quintessential film that can be enjoyed by both
children and adults alike, which is a rarity these days. And after years of ambiguity, it is finally
being accepted for what it really is: a masterpiece.