Saturday, October 22, 2022

Frankenweenie (1984)

Among the many films directed by Tim Burton, one was the stop-motion animated feature Frankenweenie, which released in 2012 to positive reviews and modest success. What most may not know, however, is that it was based on a 1984 live-action short also called Frankenweenie. Of course, no one would blame you if you didn’t, as it had a fairly niche audience for the longest time, with only one theatrical run alongside a rerelease of Pinocchio, as well as the critically panned Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend in the UK, with every home video release attached to certain versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas before the inevitable Disney+ listing. In the spirit of the season, we decided to look back on this lesser-known part of Tim Burton’s career. Unfortunately, it’s not very remarkable.

The original version of Frankenweenie is based on the classic 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein, but with a suburban twist. Victor Frankenstein (Barret Oliver) is a child scientist and aspiring filmmaker whose dog, Sparky, was hit by a car and killed. A science lesson shortly after about electrical impulses in muscles inspires him to reanimate Sparky with electricity. Successful, Victor tries keeping Sparky’s second chance at life a secret, but Sparky inevitably escapes the house and terrifies the neighborhood.

Setting the story in suburban America allows for some clever twists on the Frankenstein formula, or at least the version known by the general public. Victor’s inspiration for playing God feels like something a desperate child might consider, replacing torches with flashlights feels more modern while doubling as a humorous play on the British English word for “flashlight” and the famous windmill scene comes this time in the form of a local minigolf course. There’s some humor, with a plethora of visual jokes in the cemetery and at least one fairly unsubtle nod to another Universal Frankenstein film, though the short also acknowledges the tendency to exaggerate claims of something that people don’t understand out of fear. Viewers can also recognize touches of Tim Burton’s general style, both through the set designs and cinematography, most evidently in the cemetery scene.

Beyond that, however, there isn’t much to say about the original Frankenweenie. Though this short is more of a parody than a serious adaptation, which isn’t inherently wrong, the story doesn’t really break much new ground and the acting feels inconsistent, which comes off as bad direction on Burton’s part. On top of that, the score isn’t memorable.

While not one of Tim Burton’s better efforts, the original Frankenweenie is still worth watching once, if only for a look at one of his earliest attempts at directing.

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