Frankenweenie - Halloween(-ish) Review
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
OK, well, some of you may have caught me doing a Halloween review earlier in the month, and how, during then, the focus was on Misery by Stephen King.
Well, now I have a review that was all set for Halloween, even if it ended up being a day late, and much like last Valentine’s Day, I’ll be reviewing a pair of films all at once. And also like back then, the pair of films are really just the original version and the remake reviewed side by side. Well, technically, this is a “feature and a half” review, but you get the idea. For this Halloween, I’ll be talking about a tale of a boy and his dog, but with a wry, abnormal, and freaky spin—also known as Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.
Before I talk about the films, let’s jump into a quick history lesson first.
Back in the early 80s, Tim Burton started his film career as an up-and-coming Disney animator whose animation work included The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. Around that time, he was given funding by Disney to create his own small film project. The answer was a half hour live-action featurette called Frankenweenie...much to the absolute displeasure of Disney. Not only did they consider the short film to be a waste of money, but they considered it to be too dark and dreary for mainstream family entertainment, and so, they fired Tim Burton on the spot. Fortunately, the short film caught the attention of Paul Rubens, and he asked Tim Burton to join him in making what would eventually have become Burton’s cinematic feature debut, Pee-wee‘s Big Adventure. Thus, Tim Burton’s film career was born.
Later in the early 2010‘s, Burton jumped onto the bandwagon in remaking Frankenweenie as a stop motion animated film. There, he returned to the director’s chair this time around, and took the opportunity to base its visual design off of the original drawings he made of Frankenweenie – possibly around the same time he made the featurette – just like how he made The Nightmare Before Christmas. While it pleased a lot of critics, it also struggled at the box office, most likely because it opened on the same weekend as Hotel Transylvania.
With that out of the way, let’s start with the featurette, shall we?
Released in 1984, Frankenweenie was about a young boy named Victor Frankenstein – a different one than the one you may have thought of, mind you – and his dog Sparky. They were the best of friends, but tragedy struck when Sparky was hit by a car. Victor and his family then spent a while afterwards grieving Sparky’s death, and it seemed like life was going to go on without Sparky...until Victor flashed on an idea during science class. The idea was to use a huge amount of electricity, including some harvested from lightning, in the hopes of reigniting life back into Sparky. I won’t be ruining the film, I don’t believe, when I say that Victor succeeded in his efforts. However, this came with consequences; while Victor tried to hide him from his parents, Sparky fled the house and inadvertently terrorized the neighborhood, leading to the barriers being broken down one by one.
For an early film project from Tim Burton, I liked how compact this featurette was in its storytelling, and it also did a good job of heightening the emotional connection we shared as the viewer with Victor and Sparky. And need we forget the homages it made to some of the horror classics of our time, like Frankenstein? The Frankenstein family, the idea of bringing the dead back to life, and even the black poodle at the end who liked Sparky and coincidentally had a hairstyle similar to the Bride of Frankenstein? Those were what gave Frankenweenie its weirdness, and by extension, Tim Burton’s personal filmmaking styles. At the same time, however, being that this was an early film project nonetheless, I can easily see someone who didn’t see this featurette mistaking it for a completely different kind of movie. That is to say, they could think of it as a black-and-white film that was made directly back in the 50s, or they could think of it as someone else’s film project that also revisited the 50s in its own fashion...all of this being if Sparky wasn’t in the picture. Of course, speaking of the 50s, I did recognize the idealized picture of the 50s that Tim Burton made with Frankenweenie, especially since he would eventually have returned to incorporate that aesthetic in Edward Scissorhands.
With the basics of the featurette covered, let’s now hop on over to the new Frankenweenie, released in 2012.
To start this off, unlike the featurette, which, nice as it was, seemed like a vague black-and-white film set in the 50s with abnormal visual quirks, this Frankenweenie just screamed Tim Burton. You can tell on a visual level that it was, in a sense, re-creating almost all the visual aesthetics under Tim Burton’s arsenal, especially that of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even the setting, which was now named New Holland – whereas in the featurette, the setting might have been 50s era LA, I don’t know which one – resembled Edward Scissorhands in its portrayal and its sense of community more than the original one did.
The story played out more or less the same as in the featurette, but with creative twists and turns aplenty to compensate with the longer running time, and all of them benefiting the plot nicely.
The film maintained its focus on Victor and Sparky‘s friendship, but it also took the time to dive into Victor’s aspirations and what he was like to the other people in his social circle. Victor was shown to be quite intrigued by science, to the point that his obsession with it may have been shutting him out from society. This worried his father, Edward, the most, and he went as far as to encourage Victor to play baseball as a means of getting out in the fresh air and making new friends. Not that it discouraged Victor, though; he actually did go out to play baseball in the town outfield at one point, where, on the third strike, he even hit the ball. However, because Sparky was present and because he had a habit of bringing the ball back to Victor whenever it was thrown, this was what ultimately led to him getting hit by the car, and setting the main plot into motion.
In the original featurette, when the death of Sparky occurred, it was instantly interrupted by the opening credits, making us feel only shocked and a little forlorn, at the most. Here, when it does happen, you feel the Frankenstein family’s pain, and you especially sympathize with Victor big time as he mourned the loss of his best friend.
In addition, the idea he got from science class to revive Sparky with electricity came from his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, and because it worked to great success, Victor idolized him for it, even though Rzykruski was met with suspicions from his other peers for the unorthodoxy of his teaching methods.
While the film still maintained its focus on Victor and Sparky’s friendship, it took the time to focus on other characters in greater measure. You know the black poodle from the end of the short film that liked Sparky? Well, she was given much more screentime here as well as a name: Persephone. As a result, the interactions between her and Sparky became more effective, more layered, and dare I say it, more adorable then in the featurette. It even explained how Persephone got the weird Bride-of-Frankenstein-inspired hairdo; she got it after being shocked by a spark of electricity she got from Sparky.
By extension, Persephone happened to be the pet of Victor’s neighbor and classmate, Elsa, who established the typical Goth girl persona recognizable from such films as Beetlejuice. Case in point: she had to perform a song for an event called Dutch Day, and begrudgingly so, under the command of her fathe–I mean, uncle, and mayor of New Holland, Bob Burgermeister. And speaking of classmates...
In the original short film, the kids from Victor’s school were shown as generic kids who were friends with Victor and even expressed their condolences to him after Sparky‘s death...but that’s it. Here, they were fleshed out more with unique identities and even their own sense of creepiness. It got even less comfortable, however, when it was announced that a science fair that the kids and Victor had to get ready for was near, in which case, they expressed some selfishness in their own ambitions.
Let’s start with Edgar. He was the hunchback-esque kid who resembled Igor and was the first to discover the methods used by Victor to resurrect Sparky. He was sort of like the polar opposite of Victor because unlike Victor, who was sort of a social outcast but didn’t care much about it, Edgar wanted to get attention to the point of using his and Victor’s social images to his advantage for the science projects he intended to make with him for the science fair. Though asked by Victor to keep his electricity methods a secret, he double-crossed him by spreading the word about them to his classmates. From there on, he, along with four other kids – I’ll get to them in a minute – tried to follow Victor’s formula so they could do some animal resurrecting of their own.
Three of the kids – whose names were Toshiaki, Bob and Nassor – were standard kids with undeniably odd personal quirks and endless pursuits in getting their science projects off the ground. I don’t remember what Nassor was going to create, but both Toshiaki and Bob were going to create mini-rockets made out of soda bottles with Bob as the participating subject. Again, this was all before they learned about Victor’s reviving formula.
But while they were all weird in their own way – aside from Edgar, the biggest standout from the crowd was Ann. In the original featurette, she was shown as an average girl with a slightly younger attitude than what was expected from someone her age. But here?
Ann was creepy with a capital C, as was her cat, Mr. Whiskers. At one point, Ann showed Victor a cat turd Mr. Whiskers left behind that was shaped like a V, and that if it was produced in the same shape of the letter as the letter of the first name of one of their classmates, ‘something big would happen to them’. This hinted at a certain propheticism that Ann and Mr. Whiskers have mastered, and this added another level of eeriness to their characters.
Also, as far as the pursuit of winning first place in the science fair was concerned, it started to become less of a focus as Victor and all the other kids practiced reviving their animals from the dead, ultimately tying into the theme of such actions leading to consequences. But while the kids learning about Victor’s formula was the main consequence of Victor’s actions, the consequences that resulted from their actions were more massive and more surreal.
The homages that tied into Tim Burton’s themes in the original featurette were cranked up to eleven here. Even better, the results of the classmates’ attempts to resurrect their dead pets made the most out of them, to the point where the surrealism factor, the scare factor, and the homages almost went hand-in-hand. There was one instance where Toshiaki revived his dead turtle Shelley, only for her to come to as a 60-foot monster. Not only did she resemble Godzilla that way, but her name was a double play on words, paying homage to Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame, and to Shelley Duvall, one of the actresses from the original featurette.
There was another instance where Mayor Bob, upon seeing Shelley, instantly left her niece behind on the Dutch Day event and fled to one of the nearest latrines for safety only to be attacked by other creatures. Jurassic Park, anyone?
As far as things went with Nassor and his dead pet, whose name was Colossus, his way of resurrecting him was presented with a huge dramatic buildup that was going to hint at something exciting to come at his end, all set to an homage to The Mummy. As to what happened to them from there on out... well, I won’t give anymore away beyond this point, but let’s just say that the entire thing was surprisingly hilarious, and you just have to see it for yourself. Collectively, it’s almost like the results of the classmates’ attempts to bring their dead pets back to life were a straight up tribute to the campy horror themed B-movies of the 50s.
Long story short, the 1984 Frankenweenie and the 2012 Frankenweenie both felt equivalent to watching stages of growth. While the original 1984 featurette was nice as a demonstration of someone’s creativity coming to light, the 2012 animated film was like seeing that same creativity coming into full play. Now, bear in mind, this wasn’t the first time a director revisited an older film of his or her own and remade it to make it bigger; Cecil B. DeMille, for instance, made The Ten Commandments in 1923 as a black-and-white silent film before making it again in 1956 in color, with sound, and with a much larger scope, and it has since become a classic in its own right because of it. This sort of aligns with my thoughts on both versions of Frankenweenie. The short film was nice, but the feature-length film took the most advantages with what it had. I don’t know how the collective public views the film at the time of this writing, but I do hope it’ll get more attention as an exceptional film, because that’s what it is: creepy but exceptional and also underrated.
See if you can revive these films from obscurity, and find out what you’ve been missing.
Frankenweenie (1984): B
Frankenweenie (2012): A-