I had a chance to watch Tim Burton’s 2012 stop-motion film Frankenweenie this past week. This is an interesting film in that it’s one of the few cases I can think of where a director essentially had the chance to remake his own film. The original version was a short starring Daniel Stern, Shelly Duvall, and Barrett Oliver filmed in 1984, but only released in its full form as a special feature with The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Frankenweenie is largely an homage to James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein. In both versions of Burton’s film, young Victor Frankenstein has a dog named Sparky, who is hit by a car. Inspired by his science teacher, he uses the power of electricity to bring the dog back from the dead. The dog wreaks havoc on the neighbors and they ultimately chase him to a windmill which is burned to the ground. In the end, Sparky proves himself to be a hero.
The original is set in a Southern California town. The lighting, settings, and black-and-white cinematography remind me distinctly of the films of Edward D. Wood, Jr., who Burton would pay tribute to a few years later. The newer version of the film is set in a town called New Holland and features a cast of characters who recall an assortment of people from monster films from the 1930s through the 1980s. Sparky wreaks havoc, but even worse havoc is wrought when Victor’s young peers also attempt to reanimate dead pets.
There’s a lot to like in the new film. I particularly liked that the boy Toshiaki’s pet is a turtle named Shelly (great homage to Frankenstein’s creator) who becomes a monster reminiscent of the kaiju, Gamera. I also liked the fact that this animated film isn’t a musical. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a fun animated musical, but I think there are plenty of stories that lend themselves to animation, that don’t lend themselves to songs.
There were a couple of things I liked less about the remake than the original. Well acquainted as Tim Burton is with James Whale and the Universal monster films, I was disappointed that the child named Edgar E. Gore was more reminiscent of the stereotypical “Igor” than he was of Dwight Frye, who originally played the doctor’s assistant. The latter would have felt more organic to me in Burton’s artificial world.
In the original film, Sparky dies because Victor is playing ball with him and the dog runs out in the street. The scene felt like it belonged. In the new movie, Victor’s dad follows the path of so many stereotypical Hollywood dads and worries that his son isn’t active enough in sports, and tries to get him involved in the baseball team. Victor hits the ball and Sparky runs after it, where he’s hit by the car. The world of Frankenweenie is so delightfully warped that it’s almost funny that Victor’s dad is concerned about how normal his son is, but it didn’t quite erase the feeling of a contrived Hollywood father/son relationship.
All in all, this provided a much-needed light respite from my work on The Astronomer’s Crypt. If I dare invoke a baseball analogy, I’m down to the home stretch. I hope to have the novel turned in to my publisher by mid-May.