Frankenweenie: Tim Burton Turns Frankenstein Tale into Disney Kids Film (1984)

When Tim Bur­ton was 25 years old The Walt Dis­ney Com­pa­ny gave him a bud­get of almost a mil­lion dol­lars to make a movie about a boy and his dog. It’s the usu­al sto­ry, except that the dog is run over by a car and the boy’s name is Vic­tor Franken­stein.

We don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Let’s just say that jumper cables are involved.

Bur­ton had been recruit­ed by Dis­ney in 1979, when he grad­u­at­ed from art school. In cer­tain ways it was a dream job, but there was fric­tion right from the begin­ning. Bur­ton and Dis­ney were a strange match. He start­ed out as an ani­ma­tor on The Fox and the Hound. “It was like Chi­nese water tor­ture,” he says in Bur­ton on Bur­ton. “Imag­ine draw­ing a cute fox with Sandy Dun­can’s voice for three years.”

After his time in cute-fox pur­ga­to­ry, Bur­ton got a chance to express his goth­ic imag­i­na­tion in Vin­cent, a six-minute ani­mat­ed film nar­rat­ed by his boy­hood idol, Vin­cent Price. The film impressed peo­ple, but the stu­dio did­n’t quite know what to do with it. “I felt very hap­py to have made it,” Bur­ton says in the book. “It was a lit­tle odd, though, because Dis­ney seemed to be pleased with it, but at the same time kind of ashamed.”

At about that time the com­pa­ny was devel­op­ing a project for tele­vi­sion called The Dis­ney Chan­nel, which fea­tured a series on fairy tales. Bur­ton’s idea was to do a ver­sion of Hansel and Gre­tel with an all-Japan­ese cast and a big kung-fu fight at the end. Some­how he man­aged to receive a green light for the project, and it became his first live-action film. “I had a room filled with draw­ings,” he says, “and I think that was the thing that made them feel com­fort­able about me, to some degree. Even though, visu­al­ly, the draw­ings aren’t easy to imag­ine in three dimen­sions, or in any oth­er form than those draw­ings, I think it made them feel I was­n’t com­plete­ly insane, and that I could actu­al­ly do some­thing.”

Hansel and Gre­tel was an impor­tant step­ping stone for the project that had been per­co­lat­ing in Bur­ton’s sub­con­scious since he was a hor­ror film-obsessed child grow­ing up in Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia. The idea of tak­ing the clas­sic Franken­stein tale and trans­form­ing it into a chil­dren’s sto­ry about an Amer­i­can boy and his beloved dog some­how seemed nat­ur­al to Bur­ton. He saw echoes of James Whale’s clas­sic film, and its sequels, all around him. He says:

What was great was that you almost did­n’t even have to think about it, because grow­ing up in sub­ur­bia there were these minia­ture golf cours­es with wind­mills which were just like the one in Franken­stein. These images just hap­pened to coin­cide, because that was your life. There were poo­dles that always remind­ed you of the bride of Franken­stein with the big hair. All those things were just there. That’s why it felt so right or easy for me to do–those images were already there in Bur­bank.

Although the film would even­tu­al­ly get Bur­ton into hot water with Dis­ney, Franken­wee­nie marks a mile­stone in his devel­op­ment as a film­mak­er. As Aurélien Fer­enczi writes in Mas­ters of Cin­e­ma: Tim Bur­ton, “the seeds of Edward Scis­sorhands are already vis­i­ble in Franken­wee­nie.” The 30-minute film, which can be viewed above in its entire­ty, stars Bar­ret Oliv­er as the young Vic­tor Franken­stein and Daniel Stern and Shel­ley Duvall as his par­ents. The sto­ry was writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Leonard Ripps, based on Bur­ton’s sketch­es and their shared emo­tion­al respons­es to the 1931 Franken­stein. Says Bur­ton:

Some­thing that’s always been very impor­tant to me is not to make a direct link­age. If I was to sit down with some­body, and we were to look at a scene from Franken­stein and say ‘Let’s do that’, I would­n’t do it, even if it’s a homage or an inspired-by kind of thing. In fact, if I ever use a direct link to some­thing, I try to make sure in my own mind that it’s not a case of ‘Let’s copy that’. Instead it’s, ‘Why do I like that, what’s the emo­tion­al con­text in this new for­mat?’ That’s why I always try to gauge if peo­ple get me and are on a sim­i­lar wave­length. The writer Lenny Ripps was that way. he got it. He did­n’t want to sit there and go over Franken­stein; he knew it well enough. It’s more like it’s being fil­tered through some sort of remem­brance.

The film was com­plet­ed in 1984, and was intend­ed to be screened with a re-release of Pinoc­chio, but dis­as­ter struck. The Motion Pic­ture Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca gave Franken­wee­nie a PG rat­ing. Dis­ney could­n’t show a PG film with the G‑rated Pinoc­chio. The stu­dio exec­u­tives were furi­ous. “I was a lit­tle shocked,” Bur­ton says, “because I don’t see what’s PG about the film: there’s no bad lan­guage, there’s only one bit of vio­lence, and the vio­lence hap­pens off-cam­era. So I said to the MPAA, ‘What do I need to get a G rat­ing?’ and they basi­cal­ly said, ‘Thre’s noth­ing you can cut, it’s just the tone.’ I think it was the fact that it was in black and white that freaked them out. There’s noth­ing bad in the movie.”

There are dif­fer­ing accounts on whether Bur­ton was fired or quit, but in any case Franken­wee­nie marked the end of Bur­ton’s employ­ment at Dis­ney. But enough peo­ple saw the film and rec­og­nized Bur­ton’s bril­liance that he was able to move on to the next phase of his career. One of those peo­ple was Stephen King, who gave a tape of Franken­wee­nie to an exec­u­tive at Warn­er Bros. who was look­ing for a fresh tal­ent to direct a movie star­ring Pee-wee Her­man. This Fall, Bur­ton will have his tri­umphal revenge when Dis­ney brings out an IMAX 3D ani­mat­ed remake of Franken­wee­nie. You can watch the trail­er below:

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.