Tim Burton’s new film Frankenweenie marks an almost literal return to his roots. The feature takes the 1984 short of the same name, which Burton made at Disney when he was just 25, and reanimates it using stop-motion. But while the feature film is three times longer than the original, with a budget dozens of times larger (the original cost less than a million dollars), it still feels, compared to the Burton of recent vintage, refreshingly small. At the end of the day, both are just a story of a boy and his dog.
It’s difficult to say, though, which is the better film. Burton has long thought that the original could have been a full-length feature (in some ways he realized this vision with Edward Scissorhands, another Frankenstein-inspired feature), and much of what he does is simply expand upon the sturdy framework of the original. Most of the gags and even many of the shots and transitions are left entirely intact, almost as if the original was just a series of storyboards for the feature.
But for fans, they’re both worth watching. The new film is gorgeously rendered, making fine use of 3D and the old-fashioned pleasures of stop-motion animation. The original, on the other hand, features especially fluid cinematography, complete with dog’s-eye shots from the POV of Sparky—and one should not underestimate the camp value of watching an actual dog trot around in uncomfortable Frankenstein makeup. The movies’ two science teachers, Paul Bartel’s Mr. Walsh and Martin Landau’s Mr. Rzykruski, are endearingly clueless in their own completely different ways. In the remake, on the other hand, Rzykruski nearly runs away with the movie.
But the new Frankenweenie is also in some sense a way of redeeming the original. The live-action Frankenweenie was originally set to be shown with Pinocchio in its rerelease, but Disney shelved it after the MPAA gave it a PG rating. Burton asked what he could do to bring it in line with Pinocchio’s G; according to Burton, they said, “There’s nothing you can cut, it’s just the tone.” (Burton has since argued that Pinocchio was just as frightening for children as Frankenweenie, but that people simply overlook the darkness lurking in children’s classics.) The old Frankenweenie languished on Disney’s shelves for years, and it was almost a decade before it was finally released in the U.S. in the lead-up to Batman (1992). The new Frankenweenie has been released with a rating of PG.
It was ultimately love for Frankenweenie, from Paul Reubens and others, that brought Burton his big break with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Burton has returned to Disney to work on a few projects since—including the Frankenweenie remake.