The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
Tim Burton is a director that has always been interested in the macabre, but unlike most filmmakers with similar tastes he’s never really been interested in making a straight-up horror movie. He ventures into R-rated territory occasionally, but even movies like Sleepy Hollow and Sweeny Todd haven’t really been “scary” per se. In fact, Burton has actually had a pretty long history of making films that are either for children or those who are children at heart. This is, after all, a man who got his start at Disney and whose first feature length film was an adaptation of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” In fact I would argue that Burton’s relationship with younger audiences is not unlike that of Steven Spielberg’s: both of them are in touch with a certain child-like imagination even if they aren’t necessarily always making movies that are meant specifically for young children, it just so happens that Burton’s inner-child is interested in darker and more twisted things. In fact you can get an interesting peak into what the young Tim Burton’s life was like by watching his first foray into stop-motion animation: the 1982 short film “Vincent,” which is about a brooding little seven year old who “doesn’t mind living with his sister dog and cats, though he’d rather share a home with spiders and bats.”
Burton’s most successful attempt to appeal directly to children was almost certainly his 1993 stop-motion animation project The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film which was actually directed by Henry Selick, but written, produced, designed, and shepherded by Burton to the point where his name was placed in front of the title. Marketers didn’t really know what to do with that film, and Disney (who had produced the film) felt compelled to hand over distribution of the film to their Touchstone arm for fear that it might taint their brand. The film made decent money on its initial release, but it was only afterwards when it came to home video where it really found its audience. Since then, it’s become a pretty big cult hit and something of a holiday tradition even among general audiences, but the people who really truly embraced it (and Burton’s other films for that matter) were what was typically referred to as “the Hot Topic crowd.” You know, people who you don’t really want to call “goths” (because it isn’t 1991 anymore) and you don’t really want to call “emos” (because it’s not 2006 anymore) but who still sort of share that sensibility. Yeah, those people ate that movie up and proceeded to litter the internet with their pencil drawings of jack Skellington. Hey, I’ve got nothing against it, finding a niche like that to worship you is an accomplishment in my book.
Anyway, Burton’s career as a children’s entertainer didn’t end there. A Nightmare Before Christmas may have been ahead of its time and the studios didn’t know how to market it, but they didn’t make that mistake again. Since then he’s been allowed to put his name on live action family films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, but the films that really seem to be the follow-ups to Nightmare were his animated projects James and the Giant Peach (another Henry Selick film, one that Burton seems to have less of a direct hand in), Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie. It’s those last two projects I’m going to be looking at today. Both were heavily anticipated to be the biggest cult hits since Nightmare and both got decent reviews and were given their share of awards nominations, but neither really captured the public’s imaginations and I want to see why.
Before I get too deep into Corpse Bride I should probably say a couple of words about the film it’s clearly living in the shadows of: The Nightmare Before Christmas. I actually saw that movie in its initial theatrical run when I was six years old and I think I liked it at the time but my memories are a bit hazy. It certainly wasn’t a movie I loved to death and felt compelled to own and watch a million more times… in fact I didn’t see it again until earlier this year when I gave it a watch as research for this piece. On a rewatch I found that I liked but didn’t love A Nightmare Before Christmas. It was a pretty fun movie with some charming puppetry and enjoyable songs, but it was also pretty slight experience without a whole lot of depth. Still it was a fun little art project and I could see why people would like showing it to kids around Halloween.
Corpse Bride came out over a decade later and long after A Nightmare Before Christmas’ cult following had established itself and expectations were fairly high. I wouldn’t exactly say that the movie was a huge disappointment when it came out. It got fairly respectful reviews, it certainly made its budget back at the box office, and it even got an Academy award nomination for Best Animated Film, albeit in a weak and unusual year that didn’t have a Pixar movie, a Dreamworks movie, or a Disney movie competing for the award and in which none of the nominees were computer animated for what was first and probably last time (it lost to Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit). If it had been a great movie it probably would have been in a good position to, like its predecessor, become a cult sensation. That didn’t really happen though; the film is rarely talked about anymore and is practically forgotten by everyone but Tim Burton completists. As such I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the movie.
The film is based on a Russian/Jewish folk tale about a man who, while practicing his wedding vows, accidentally finds himself married to a dead woman after slipping his wedding ring onto a what he thought was an inanimate object jutting out of the ground but was actually the skeletal finger of a woman who died waiting for her true love. Where the traditional story ends on the jolt of the corpse coming to life, the film tries to stick around and see what someone in that situation would do. It’s an appropriately macabre situation: our hero is a young man named Victor Van Dort in an unnamed 19th century European village who was being pressured by his parents into marrying the daughter of another wealthy family, but he suddenly finds himself in the middle of this crazy love-triangle with his original fiancé and the dead girl he accidentally marries. In some crazy way this almost feels like an allegory for having an affair and getting the “other woman” pregnant. Victor was wavering in his commitment to his fiancé and the next thing you know he has to take responsibility for the well-being of this other woman he doesn’t really know but who’s inexplicably linked to him because of something he did. In a different context this is basically the same story being told in Usher’s “Confessions Part 2.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, but the movie starts to go wrong by populating the story with some fairly weak and undeveloped characters. Victor is probably the biggest problem. He’s a super soft-spoken clutz completely lacking in confidence and there’s not a lot to really grab onto with the character. Maybe an actor in a live action movie would be able to make these qualities relatable and sympathetic, but that doesn’t quite translate in stop motion and Johnny Depp’s voice performance doesn’t really help. Depp is actually kind of an odd choice to do voice over work, his appeal as an actor is almost entirely rooted in his physicality and to the way he commits to unconventional choices; he’s not really much of a talker. The two female characters on the other hand just don’t really seem to have a whole lot to them. Victor’s fiancé is almost entirely defined by the ways Victor jerks her around and the titular corpse bride is entirely defined by the way she’s stuck between two worlds.
The two worlds in the film are the world of the living and the world of the dead, and Burton perversely actually makes the world of the dead seem a lot more fun. While the world of the living is rendered with all the bleak dourness you expect from a 19th Russian village, the world of the dead is a lot more colorful and filled with fun characters that sing songs and engage in gallows humor. I get what Burton was going for with this, but it doesn’t really work, in part because he just doesn’t execute as well as he did when he and Henry Selick were making A Nightmare Before Christmas. Where Halloween Town seemed to be brimming with creativity out of its every orifice, this world of the dead is actually kind of boring. There are a couple of neat ideas here and there like a talking worm living the corpse bride’s eye socket or a brigade of singing black widow spiders, but it really wasn’t as fun as it needed to be. On top of that, Danny Elfman’s songs here are not nearly as good as the ones in A Nightmare Before Christmas, not even close, and most of them are sort of slowly recited rather than sung with real panache. In general this feels less like an interesting dichotomy between life and afterlife and more like an identity crisis for a movie that isn’t sure whether it wants to be its own thing or whether it wants to be A Nightmare Before Christmas 2 and I sort of wish that it had just picked a side because what humor is here kind of feels out of place and otherwise it just seems oddly quiet and downcast for a family film.
The one area where the film sort of improves on A Nightmare Before Christmas is in its stop-motion effects, which are definitely smoother and more cleanly constructed than they were in the earlier film. This can probably be chalked up to a decade’s worth of technological advancement and an increase in budgetary confidence. I’m not exactly sure about the details of how the film was made but I think the stop-motion effects were augmented by some CGI, but I’m not really sure where the line is between the two. That said, one could even argue that this smoother look works against the film because it robs the film of the lo-fi charm that made A Nightmare Before Christmas so beloved. I keep comparing these two films, which maybe isn’t fair, but I don’t really see how I couldn’t. Corpse Bride completely lives in that film’s shadow and never really finds a way to forge its own identity, but its failure isn’t just based in its inability to fill that 1993 film’s shoes. It makes plenty of its own mistakes and rarely inspires interest. By the time it reaches the anti-climactic sword fight at its end the film has just been a pretty lifeless affair. No pun intended.
When I was a kid I was absolutely obsessed with the Universal monsters movies for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to explain. I certainly liked the movies to some extent, but really what appealed to me were the monster characters. My favorite was Dracula of course (my online identity would be very different if not for this youthful obsession), but I also couldn’t get enough of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. I liked the original movies of course, but I was plenty interested in seeking these monsters out in other mediums as well. I don’t think I was alone in this either, these characters show up all the time in youth-based Halloween fun like breakfast cereals (Count Chocula), video games (Castlevania), boy band music videos (“Backstreet’s Back”), hell there was even an animated Adam Sandler movie about these monsters a couple of years ago. This has been one of the few evergreen multi-generational pop culture interests for children going back to the Great Depression, and one of the many people influenced by them is Tim Burton.
One of Tim Burton’s very first professional projects was actually a tribute to Universal horror: his 30-minute 1984 short film “Frankenweenie.” This live-action short was produced during Burton’s tenure at Disney and was originally going to be attached to a theatrical re-release of the movie Pinocchio but that never really ended up happening and it didn’t really surface to the public until after he became a successful director. The short isn’t exactly the most polished thing ever made but given that it’s essentially a student film with a slightly larger than average budget I think it actually holds up pretty well for what it is. Burton apparently wasn’t content with it though because in 2012 he decided to revisit the project, this time in the form of a feature length stop-motion film made for forty times the budget of the original short.
I had expected the feature-length Frankenweenie to mostly be a remake of the short in name and concept only, but it’s actually a very faithful but heavily expanded adaptation that borrows characters and scenes from the short verbatim. Like the short it is about a grade school kid whose dog is run over by a car and killed, who decides to use some lessons from his science teacher to resurrect the pooch from the dead in a way that is not unlike that of the original “Frankenstein.” What’s oddly unique and interesting about both films is that it’s one of the few retellings of the Frankenstein story that doesn’t damn its protagonist for “playing god” and creating a monster, in fact it rewards him for his brashness and allows his zombie-dog to survive at the end without repercussions and continue to bring joy to his creator. For the most part though, it’s just a cute little story about a boy and his (dead) dog.
Burton learned from the mistakes he made on Corpse Bride and made sure to make Frankenweenie very different from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It isn’t a musical at all and while there is plenty of Halloween material, it’s presented very differently. In the previous Tim Burton stop-motion movies the macabre elements took the form of sentient boogiemen that inhabited monster themed “worlds” whereas here the monsters are all creations that enter into the “real” world of the film and are then slain. The other obvious stylistic difference it that Frankenweenie, like the short it’s based on, is entirely in black and white. It’s a choice that makes perfect sense for the project given that it is a fusion of Universal horror movies and 50s suburban family sitcoms, which are both intrinsically associated with black and white, but I’m willing to bet it was not an easy sell for the money-men. Like Mel Brooks before him, Burton realized that black and white is essential to any quality Universal Horror homage and he was willing to take the hit at the box office that it would entail.
So, which is better “Frankenweenie” the short or Frankenweenie the feature? Well, I think they both have their pros and cons. On one hand I feel like the feature film does need to struggle a little to fill time. The second act is very elongated and at times the movie feels like it is stalling. Victor keeps his resurrected pet hidden for way too long and then once the creature is finally revealed his parents come to accept it way too fast. The meat of the Frankenstein story is supposed to be focused on how people react to the existence of the creature, not the buildup to its revelation. On the other hand, the feature length version does a much better job of explaining why the neighbors react so violently towards Sparky. In the short people freak out even though all the dog has really done is mildly misbehave, whereas in the feature there really is a lot of hell breaking loose and it does make sense that the townspeople would be pissed. Speaking of which, the feature has more than one pet undergoing the resurrection experiment; we get a were-rat, a hamster mummy, a giant Godzilla-ish turtle named Shelly (get it, as in Mary), a brigade of mutated sea-monkeys, and a flying vampiric bat/cat hybrid. I don’t know that this late film chaos really adds a whole lot to the overall story, but it’s mostly good fun.
Overall, I wouldn’t call Frankenweenie some kind of landmark family film or even an overly essential entry in the Tim Burton filmography, but the child inside me who loved the shit out of the Universal horror movies quite enjoyed it. Critics seemed to agree with me on this point. The movie didn’t necessarily receive rave reviews or anything but most critics respected it, especially when compared to Adam Sandler’s more commercial animated Universal Horror tribute Hotel Transylvania and the film received an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category (where it lost to Pixar’s Brave in a very competitive year). The general public wasn’t so receptive. The film didn’t bomb; it made $80 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, but it more or less came and went and didn’t really capture the zeitgeist. That’s probably a factor of the black and white, or maybe a factor of its incredibly dumb sounding title. Still, I think for what the film is, that isn’t so bad and I’m sure that Burton can still rightfully put the film in his “win” column.
Is Tim Burton the animator as good as Tim Burton the live-action director? Well, with the limited sample size we have to work with I’m going to have to say “no.” All three of these movies seem to be flawed in one way or the other and the one that people seem to like the most is the one he had the least control over. Still, I like that these movies were made. They’re neat little side projects and they’ve definitely proven to be influential. It’s not entirely clear where stop-motion would be today if not for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas back in ’93. Would there have been a Fantastic Mr. Fox if not for Burton? Would Aardman have been able to work with Hollywood if not for Burton? Who knows. Additionally, Burton paved the way for macabre elements and darkness into the realm of family entertainment. It’s telling that Disney thought that “Frankenweenie” the short was wholly inappropriate for family audiences while they proudly released Frankenweenie the feature thirty years later. Without Burton it’s unclear if something like Monster House could have been made, and god knows where the Laika studio would be today without Burton… but we’ll get to then in the next installment.