Frankenweenie is ‘good Tim Burton’, which as it turns out still exists

Thursday October 11th 2012

When I was twelve years old, my Year 8 English teacher set me the task of writing a newspaper article about the person I most admired. I chose the man who was — at the time — my favourite filmmaker, Tim Burton. Using my working knowledge of Microsoft Word’s ‘header and footer’ functionality, I attributed the piece to a fictional publication by the name of ‘MovieMax Magazine’ and opted for the attention grabbing headline:

“I was fired by a mouse!” says director Tim Burton

Over the course of the next five paragraphs, I wrote of Burton’s burgeoning romance with Helena Bonham Carter (back then, the fact that ‘she [had] appeared in two of his films’ seemed noteworthy), described his rise to fame in the wake of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and mistakenly listed Batman Forever amongst his directorial credits. The main thrust of my argument, however, was that Burton’s firing from the Disney stable was what motivated him to develop his skills as a director. My pull quote was:

“I was just not Disney material”

… and I noted that…

“Another [early project] was a half hour film called Frankenweenie about a boy whose dog is run over and brings the dog back to life. Disney executives, saying that it was too scary for kids, rejected the film.”

This titbit is more or less true. Disney did indeed fire Burton and shelve the film for almost a decade, until the director’s rising profile prompted the studio to release Frankenweenie on VHS in 1993. Burton rejoined the Disney fold the same year to produce The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it wasn’t until 2010’s billion dollar monstrosity Alice in Wonderland that he returned to the studio as a director. By way of thanks, they gave him $39 million and the thumbs up to remake Frankenweenie for a contemporary audience. And last night, in a newly renovated Leicester Square, the film had its European premiere at the London Film Festival.

It’s hard to tell who’s changed more in the thirty odd years since Burton and Disney first parted ways, perhaps because they seem to have met somewhere in the middle. Burton, for his part, has softened his approach drastically, resulting in a workload that’s offered nothing of any particular interest thus far this century. Disney have, if not openly, at least implicitly admitted they were wrong to doubt him in the past, performing a U-turn not only on Frankenweenie but also on The Nightmare Before Christmas, which they initially released under the Touchstone Pictures banner but later re-packaged as a Disney title after it proved a gigantic hit.

The good news is: Frankenweenie is the best thing either have made in a long time. Almost entirely non-verbal and pretty fucking gruesome when you actually stop and think about what it is that you’re watching, the film maintains the legitimately dark tone of the original short while expanding the narrative in a pleasingly Scissorhands-esque direction. It’ll work for kids and adults without patronising either and — I really can’t stress this enough — it looks a fucking peach in black-and-white. Best of all, it’s a true oddity the likes of which Burton could only have dreamed of in the ten post-Sleepy Hollow years during which he steadily became an industry punchline.

As the twelve-year-old me so eloquently put it, ‘he always manages to try again’.