Frankenweenie: the short film that got Tim Burton fired

Frankenweenie (1984) directed by Tim Burton. Victor (left) watches as his mother (right) takes his dog Sparky's lead.
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2012’s animated Frankenweenie was Oscar nominated, but Tim Burton’s original 1984 short received a very different reaction from Disney.

Before Tim Burton’s career as a director took off with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, he worked as an animator and storyboard artist for Disney. He provided concept art for films including The Fox And The Hound, Tron, and The Black Cauldron, although none of his artwork was ever used by the studio. His work there, however, granted him the opportunity to make his first short films, starting with the stop-motion animated Vincent in 1982. Following that was a live action adaptation of Hansel And Gretel, and finally Frankenweenie in 1984.


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It served as both a homage to and parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The narrative focuses on introverted boy Victor, who searches for a way to bring his dog Sparky back to life after he’s hit and killed by a car. Then-child actor Barrett Oliver (who also appeared in The Neverending Story) starred as Victor Frankenstein. Shelley Duvall played his mother, alongside Daniel Stern as his father.

The black and white short shared a lot of visual connections with James Whale’s adaptation of Frankenstein, and the sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein. Sparky has bolts in his neck, the film ends with a confrontation in a burning windmill, and he meets a poodle with white streaks in her hair. The very choice to shoot it in black and white also evokes Universal’s old monster movies. However, this was a film that was meant to be aimed at Disney’s audience – children. Would they understand the reference? More importantly, was there a chance they’d be scared by Burton’s live action depiction of a dead dog being resurrected?

The short was due to be shown alongside a re-release of The Jungle Book. It was then pushed back to a winter release date, to be screened before Pinocchio, so in theory Disney would soon find out how the audience would react. Unfortunately for Burton, this wouldn’t end up happening. When Frankenweenie was given a PG classification by the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) in the US, it made it impossible for it to be screened with a U rated film. In the book Burton On Burton, the director recalls being baffled by the decision.

“I was a little shocked, because I don’t see what’s PG about the film,” he said. “There’s no bad language, there’s only one bit of violence, and the violence happens off-camera.” When Burton consulted the MPAA about how he could get the film a U rating (or G, as it’s known in the USA), he was told nothing could be done. “They basically said ‘there’s nothing you can cut. It’s just the tone.'” Burton personally thought that the short being in black and white was part of what threw the board of classification off. He also pointed out that Pinocchio has some more terrifying moments than any of Frankenweenie's.

However, for Disney, the PG rating was a dealbreaker. The film was shelved with the intention of it never being released. Burton was also fired from his job at the studio for wasting resources on a movie that wasn’t suitable for its target audience. But it wasn’t the end, for Burton or for Frankenweenie. 

Barrett Oliver in Frankenweenie (1984) directed by Tim Burton

At the same time that Burton was looking for a feature to direct, Warner Bros. and Paul Reubens were looking for a director. Despite being shelved and not officially released, Frankenweenie had received praise from others in the film industry. Both Reubens and the producers of his film had seen and liked Vincent and Frankenweenie, and decided to hire Burton. By August 1985, the director’s first feature – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – had been released to largely positive reviews and box office success. Like many of his films since, it’s become a bit of a cult classic, and it kickstarted his career as a distinctive feature film director.

Also in 1985, Frankenweenie received a small-scale release in the UK. It was part of a double bill with Touchstone Pictures’ Baby: Secret Of The Lost Legend. The film was about a paleontologist discovering a mother and baby Brontosaurus in Africa that she then tries to protect from hunters. It was probably a bit of a strange double bill.

Despite Disney’s initial feelings towards Burton’s short, it did eventually get a home video release in 1992. This is, of course, after Burton had made himself a household name with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, and the release of Batman Returns was imminent. Later, it would also be included as a bonus feature on various Blu-ray releases of The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

The situation with Disney, Burton, and Frankenweenie came full circle in 2012, when he and the studio would work together on a feature length, stop-motion remake of the short. Disney’s attempts to do this date back to 2005, with scripts written by Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott. John August (who worked with Burton on Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride) would also be hired to do rewrites.

Aesthetically, much of 2012 Frankenweenie is a shot-for-shot remake of the short, showing just how much the studio’s opinion of not just the story, but also the original film, had changed. Perhaps the animated nature of the remake made it more palatable, but it nonetheless received a PG rating, like its predecessor. The studio’s change of heart is likely both down to changes within the studio over the years, and Burton’s growth in reputation and cult following.

This full circle moment makes the original Frankenweenie an important part of Burton’s filmography. The short that got him fired from Disney, that the studio said they would never release, ended up being revived by that same studio as a feature animation decades later. The film industry is a notoriously difficult one, but perhaps in this instance things worked out exactly how they were meant to in the end.

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