*This Look Back May Contain Some Spoilers Ahead*
In high school, I had an English teacher that liked to take some time out of her teaching to show us a movie or two (as teachers do from time to time), which she then would use as a teaching tool to coincide with the material we were reading. One of the films she showed us was the Tim Burton short Frankenweenie, an obvious parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except with a bull terrier in place of a dead body, and a ten-year old Victor Frankenstein. As short as it was, Frankenweenie proved to be charming with an element of creepiness and a message of how appearances can be deceiving. While this wasn’t Burton’s first project (as he was an animator at Disney years before and Victor being his first stop-motion short), Frankenweenie helped put Burton on the map and paved the way for his transition to motion pictures. He would later go on to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman, eventually becoming a household name and an idol for the outcasts of the world, goths, and those who wanted to be spooky; in other words, a creative genius.
As a Burton fan myself, the month of October is a time where I can relish myself in his projects (Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride, and The Nightmare Before Christmas being my go-to choices), yet after learning of his take on Hansel & Gretel for Disney Channel, which got pulled for being too scary for children, it triggered a memory of that short film I once was exposed to in that English class, which in turn, motivated me to visit it yet again after a decade. Being that Frankenweenie had the Disney brand stamped on it, my first instinct was to go straight to Disney+, which I might add has a healthy dose of content for all your Disney needs. Thankfully, it wasn’t too scary for the streaming service, so I could go back and relive that moment, only with my two-year-old son who has finally started to grasp the concept of entertainment (Some days, Cocomelon just isn’t going to cut it for this weary dad!).
Burton has a unique style to go with his work; almost immediately, you can tell which films have his touch, even if you forget who had his fingerprints on it. Frankenweenie is filled to the brim with Burton’s touch; the gothic atmosphere, black-and-white cinematography, which was used in Vincent and returned in Ed Wood and his animated feature-length remake of this film (though Thomas E. Ackerman was not involved with those three films), and creepy music (provided by Michael Convertino and David Newman instead of long-time collaborator Danny Elfman). Burton’s work shows all-around, not just with the filmmaking techniques, but with his idea. Burton is known for coming up with wacky characters that society tends to look down on only to bring them into said society that is even more so wacky (most notably Edward Scissorhands, where a man made with scissors for hands tries to fit in with suburban life, only to be shunned for his handicap). Being an outsider himself, it is clear that Burton sympathizes with the monster in Shelley’s novel, as he is nothing more than a misunderstood being that has no concept of the world, yet only knows fear and hatred based on his creator’s desire to play God. What better way for us to go along with Burton’s point-of-view than to turn that giant hulking beast into a sweet, innocent dog!
When our pets leave us, we wish we could bring them back to life in order for them to stay with us forever. Burton uses Shelley’s work as a way to grant our wish of animal immortality in the form of the dog’s owner, Victor Frankenstein (The NeverEnding Story’s Barrett Oliver), who has that opportunity to bring his dead dog, Sparky, back to life after learning about how a lifeless body can react after a jolt of electricity from his science class taught by Paul Bartel’s Mr. Walsh. Once Victor brings Sparky back from the dead, the dog is stitched completely, yet is still a lovable presence in a mix of creepy and adorable, leading to moments of horror comedy as neighbors get frightened upon seeing the shadow of Sparky, and the parents’ (Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall) discovery of the reanimated Sparky (Even a young Sofia Coppola gets a jolt of fright after seeing a shadow of Sparky outside her clubhouse).
The ending is when the message of appearances being deceiving really hits home as the discovery of Sparky is made clear and the perception of the neighbors causes Sparky to run away to a locked up miniature golf course, leading Victor, his parents and neighbors to chase after him. It isn’t until Sparky saves Victor from the flames of the windmill in the golf course, when the townspeople see Sparky’s worth as they decide to revive him with jumper cables after remnants of the windmill tumble upon him. It is a sweet ending adding to its heart, along with a funny homage to Bride of Frankenstein as Sparky notices a poodle with Elsa Lanchester’s iconic perm.
If nearly a half-hour is not enough to satisfy your Burton craving, he did end up remaking his short in stop-motion form in 2012, which adds more (and can be on the more ridiculous line of things), yet is still worth a watch for that same amount of heart, comedy, and beauty. Both films are on Disney+, so I suggest checking them out.