If you’ve gone to the movies lately, you may well have seen the trailer for Tim Burton’s upcoming Frankenweenie. While its black-and-white stop-motion animation looks nifty — and it’ll surely look even niftier in IMAX 3D — Burton enthusiasts know full well that the film isn’t entirely new. The original Frankenweenie, a much shorter and rougher-edged but nevertheless uniquely charming picture, came out 28 years ago, and you can watch it free on Youtube today. A live-action film with a kinetically askew visual sensibility, this first Frankenweenie tells the same story as the new one: a boy brings his beloved dead dog back to life using the reviving power of electricity, but few residents of his small town approve of the resulting bolt-necked, stitched-together creature. Burton has made the long, hard road to acceptance faced by well-meaning but ramshackle beings one of his dominant themes, so his desire to make a second Frankenweenie comes as no great surprise — especially since he also made the first one.
Working for Disney at the time, the young Burton managed to land players like Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and a 13-year-old Sofia Coppola for this charmingly goofy homage to Frankenstein. Sadly, the studio ultimately considered the project a waste of money, and too scary to screen for children, and sent Burton packing. But however discouraging the experience must have felt in the moment, it gave him 30 full minutes to tell a story. His earlier shorts, like the thirty-second Houdini: The Untold Story above, had to operate under much more compressed conditions. (Legend has it that Burton turned that film in to a teacher in lieu of a book report.) After his 1985 feature breakthrough Pee-Wee‘s Big Adventure, he still found the occasional chance to make a short, as when he created The Jar, for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Some viewers like Burton’s movies better the more resources he has to make them; others prefer the fruits of his more constrained (and thus restrained) years. To best decide for yourself, you’ll want to take this highly entertaining course in the formation of his distinctive style by watching his early shorts, six of which have become available online.
- Houdini: The Untold Story (1976)
- Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979)
- Luau (1982)
- Vincent (1982) (see also our earlier post on it)
- Frankenweenie (1984)
- The Jar (1986) (originally aired as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents)