In 1984, a young animator at Disney scored a few scraps of the company’s dough to make a 29-minute black-and-white live-action film about a boy and his dog – specifically, a boy named Victor Frankenstein who uses the wonders of electricity to bring his beloved pet, Sparky, back to life after the dog meets a swift end beneath the wheels of a car. In the movie, a persnickety neighbor in thick glasses and a muu-muu gets a glimpse of the monstrous resurrected beast – who, a few cosmetic changes aside, is the same old rambunctious, affectionate Sparky – and declares that he endangered her shrimpy dachshund. “He tried to eat my Raymond!” she screeches, rallying her suburban neighbors to rise against this snuffling, tail-wagging four-legged terror.
Sparky, for the record, did not try to eat her Raymond. But the young animator’s charming and near-perfect little movie still made Walt Disney Pictures extremely nervous, especially after parents, at an early screening, complained that the subject matter was too disturbing and just might entice their little tykes into poking forks into toasters and such. The company shelved the movie and showed the animator, a guy named Tim Burton, the door.
The short Burton had made, “Frankenweenie,” did find an audience a few years later: Disney released the picture on video after Burton had made a name for himself with the absurdly wondrous 1985 film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”– a gig that he landed, incidentally, because some influential people had seen and loved “Frankenweenie.” And now that parents – and Disney – are allegedly a lot hipper about what sorts of “dark” movies are suitable for children, Burton has another shot at telling this simple but effective story, this time in a full-length stop-motion feature, again called “Frankenweenie.”
What filmmaker wouldn’t want a second go-round – now with more money and more prestige – to tell a story he cared about deeply the first time around? But the new “Frankenweenie” raises one big question: Can Burton improve upon perfection?
In the lead-up to the release of Burton’s new version, the 1984 “Frankenweenie” has been treated as something of a curio, a little exercise that somehow flopped. (It wasn’t even Burton’s first film. He’d made previous short features, among them the whimsically chilly and charming 1982 stop-motion “Vincent,” featuring the voice of one of Burton’s idols, Vincent Price.) I haven’t yet seen the new “Frankenweenie.” But the original is such a compact and imaginative piece of filmmaking that I’m not sure reworking the story in a longer and more elaborate form -- and in a different medium -- can possibly make it better.
In retrospect, of course, the 1984 “Frankenweenie” tells us a lot about the filmmaker Burton would become: It’s modeled -- gently, not religiously -- on James Whale’s 1930s-era “Frankenstein” pictures, and even nods to their source material, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. But this Frankendog is a resident of suburbia, a cartoonified version of 1960s Burbank, where Burton grew up (and where he himself once lost a beloved dog, although that one was named Pepe). Burton shot the picture in color, which was then converted to a satiny black-and-white; that was something of a novelty even in the mid-1980s, when Ted Turner’s campaign to colorize old black-and-white movies (later reversed, thank God) was just hitting its stride.
Burton borrows several visual elements from the Whale pictures: When Sparky is pursued by the angry neighborhood folk, he rushes toward a mini-golf-course windmill, which later ends up in flames; at the end, he meets his own personal Elsa Lanchester, a poodle with a lightning-streaked coif; and when young Victor – the name, incidentally, is the same one Shelley gave the protagonist of her novel – resurrects Sparky from the dead, he uses some of the actual electrical props designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the “Frankenstein” pictures. (Burton and one of his producers, Julie Hickson, assiduously tracked the equipment down; it had also been used in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”)
The 1984 “Frankenweenie” is so stylized that in 2012 it might be read as clumsy or primitive. (Somehow, we now live in a time where audiences generally equate stylization with corniness.) But the picture is astonishingly fleet and efficient. Not a frame is wasted, though the picture’s emotional current runs surprisingly deep. Young Victor (played by Barret Oliver, who’d just starred in “The NeverEnding Story”) is inspired to resurrect his beloved pet when his science teacher (played, in a tiny, wonderful turn, by cult actor and filmmaker Paul Bartel) hitches some electrodes to a deceased frog. That eureka moment jolts him out of his grief and into action – the visually ingenious electrical contraption he builds includes all that Strickfaden stuff, plus the odd blender, toaster and fish tank.
Victor’s parents – played by a stupendously dadlike Daniel Stern and the prim-cool Shelley Duvall – at first wonder what horror he’s wrought, but later help him defend Sparky against their terrified neighbors. (Among those neighbors, look for a very young, and unreally blonde, Sofia Coppola.) The final sequence of "Frankenweenie," mildly suspenseful and ultimately joyous, gets me every time; this is the only short that has, over and over again, brought me to tears, though I’m always half-laughing, too.
And what about the dog? Sparky is played by a Bull Terrier also named Sparky -- he would appear again, two years later, as “the dog” in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” -- with a long, smooth snout and tiny but expressive eyes. Most of the electricity Victor feeds into Sparky seems to make its way directly to his tail, which wags with life-affirming persistence. In his revived form, Sparky’s fur has been pieced together by rows of clumsy-beautiful stitching – his whole wriggly body has become a hyperkinetic homage to Boris Karloff’s forehead. And from his neck emerge those two iconic Frankenstein bolts, the crucial, delightful detail that holds everything together. Yet Sparky is blissfully unaware of them: As usual, he runs, jumps, skitters and scampers, his toenails scrabbling against the Frankenstein family’s black-and-white linoleum tile floor -- Burton gives us the full measure of this hyperkinetic activity in a series of mischievous dog’s-eye-view shots.
In typical doglike fashion, Sparky doesn’t know AC/DC from a dog treat; he’s just glad to be alive. In the new “Frankenweenie,” Sparky is a stop-motion puppet – adorable enough, if you’ve seen the trailer. But live action, by its nature, asks more of our imagination than animation does. It’s bound more strictly, though not entirely, by the laws of physics. An animated dog can move and effect expressions that a real dog cannot. So while the new Sparky is a creature wholly invented and created by an imaginative man, the Sparky of 1984 is a far more defiant symbol: A creation of nature rendered even more lifelike, and more adorable, by the addition of movie-magic neck bolts. Now that’s what I call playing God.