Our thanks to the insightful Tom Reed for this brilliant breakdown of Tim Burton’s 29-minute short film. Tom never disappoints in his understanding of what makes a movie tick — in all its aspects. Burton is currently in production on a full-length version for Disney, due in theatres on October 5, 2012. If you’re in Los Angeles or visiting before October 31, 2011, be sure to see the Burton exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: a major retrospective exploring the full range of his creative work, both as a film director and as an artist, illustrator, photographer, and writer.
Year of Release: 1984
Written by: Lenny Ripps
Directed by: Tim Burton
Length: 29:04 mins/secs
Genre: “Out of the Bottle” Fantasy where the mechanism of transformation is mad science! Secondary genres: “Buddy Love/Pet Love” and “Rites of Passage/Death Passage.”
Logline: When his beloved dog Sparky is killed by a car, 10 year-old Victor Frankenstein secretly brings him back to life, but when the “monster dog” slips out and disrupts the neighborhood, Victor and his parents must unite to prevent a suburban mob from sending Sparky back to the grave.
Opening Image (0:00 – 1:18): This story begins with a prologue in the form of a home movie called “Monsters from Long Ago” by Victor Frankenstein. We watch it in the living room of a suburban family, where we meet 10 year-old Victor, his beloved dog (and star of the film) Sparky, Victor’s parents and friends. The broad strokes of the story to come are foreshadowed in the home movie: Sparky as monster, Victor as ambitious creative force (Sparky’s amazing costume in the film-within-a-film), even Victor’s inventive use of household items (here, kitchen mitts as Monster puppets). What’s more, central to the premise of Frankenweenie is the sustained comic riff on classic monster movies, especially Frankenstein films from the 1930s, but pretty much all monster movies going back to the dawn of cinema. This riffing comprises the Fun & Games of the entire story. For all these reasons using the movie-within-a-movie device is a perfect choice. Even the choice to keep everything in black and white (both the home movie and the main story) is a conscious reference to the history of horror in film, and so it is organic and motivated.
Theme Stated (20:18): No theme stated up front. That comes later, after the Midpoint, in the context of the B Story when Victor says to his parents, “[See, he may be back from the dead, but] he still loves you!” Theme being, we have to overcome our fear of the unknown because outsiders — even the living dead — deserve our love. This is what everyone will learn by the end.
Prologue Set-Up/All Is Lost (1:19 – 3:55): Most of the Set-Up has already taken place in the first scene, including character introductions. We don’t have “six things that need fixing.” Instead, Victor’s life is perfect: he has supportive parents, good buddies. and a beloved dog. So what’s the problem? That’s what still has to be established. Once the “screening” ends, Victor goes outside and plays fetch with Sparky, but when the dog chases the ball out into the street, tragedy befalls: Sparky is hit by a car! Now we have a clear problem and a new status quo of a world in crisis (and instead of “Save the Cat” sympathy we have the kind that comes from “Killing the Dog”!). The credits begin over images of tombstones, and this is where the Fun & Games really begin. The high-contrast lighting, playfully twisted art direction, deep shadows, and ramped-up Gothic mood of this sequence prove that the Tim Burton signature style was in full flower from the earliest days. Credits end with Victor and his parents mourning atop Sparky’s grave under a gloom-filled sky, a (Fun & Games!) mirror of Victor’s melancholic despair.
Main Story Set-Up (3:56 – 5:42): Victor’s despair over Sparky’s death continues as we see him staring out a window of his house at the pounding rain, though it’s revealed that it’s actually a sunny day and the “rain” is from his Mom’s garden hose (Fun & Games! Not the riffing on monster movie kind, just the more generally playful kind). Life must go on for Victor, so he joins his three friends on their walk to school. One asks if he’s going to get another dog, but he says, “I don’t know if I can find another one like Sparky.” This underscores the Hero’s primary story problem: without Sparky, his life is one long “Dark Night of the Soul.” How Burtonesque.
Catalyst (5:43 – 5:58): At school during science class, Victor pays no attention (he’s doodling Sparky instead) until the teacher demonstrates how electricity sent through a dead frog makes it move. “The Call” of opportunity! Victor is utterly captivated and energized by a new idea, and we see exactly what it is when we cut to his doodle that shows Sparky hooked up to a battery. Zzzzt! Zzzzt!
Debate (5:59 – 6:47): There is no hesitation or internal debate as Victor races home to get to work. However, he does have to gather information and prepare, a vital step that connects the Catalyst beat to the “Break into Two” beat, and it’s not skipped. Victor pours over science books, including Modern Chemistry and the Creation of Life. In the spirit of Fun & Games, it’s worth mentioning that the science teacher was lit and shot in a way that gave him a “mad scientist” vibe (low wide angle, high contrast, shadow-filled lighting through Venetian blinds), and when Victor is reading his science books he is lit in exactly the same way. They’re linked visually, and both are linked to the tradition of mad scientists in horror movies. Like I said, Fun & Games!
Break into Two (6:48 – 8:00): Victor fully commits to a journey that transforms his normal world into the funhouse mirror world of his namesake as he pursues the goal of resurrecting Sparky from the dead. This journey begins when he takes kitchen appliances up to the attic. Since he’s executing his plan in secret, everyone he encounters is a potential Opponent: his Mom, the next-door Neighbor — anybody who might stop him. But his now upbeat mood offsets suspicion.
B Story (8:05 – 9:08): The B Story is Victor’s relationship with Mom and Dad. They’re his friends and allies. They’re proud of how he seems to be adjusting to Sparky’s death, especially when they look in on him at bedtime and Victor tells them, “I’ll be just fine, I’m ten years old already.” His secret plan, however, creates tension for the audience: when will his parents discover his scheme and what will they do about it? These are dramatic questions that relate directly to the theme.
Fun & Games (9:09 – 12:13): As Blake mentions, this sequence is where the promise of the premise takes center stage, where the main idea of the story is fully defined, in the cleverest, “funnest” way possible (especially in a comedy). In Frankenweenie this sequence is about how Victor’s life mirrors a Frankenstein movie, and it totally delivers. It starts as Victor sneaks out of his bedroom with a shovel, shows up at Sparky’s grave, and begins to dig as storm clouds gather. He runs home in the pouring rain with a bag slung over his shoulder (we know what’s in it!). Action resumes in his attic where, as the storm rages, we see how cleverly young Victor has employed ordinary suburban props to recreate a mad scientist’s lab, employing a hair dryer, a toaster, a bicycle, the Christmas reindeer, and even a swing set(!) erected over a trap door in the roof as a kind of scaffolding. And of course, Victor wears a white lab coat. It’s art direction, costuming, and visual design as “star’” and it’s all rapturously clever. Every detail is part of the Fun & Games. Dramatically, this sequence ends in spectacular success: Sparky’s tail wags, then he licks Victor’s hand. He’s alive! The “monster” has been brought to life. Victor hugs his beloved dog. The Hero is at the peak of his success. Blake calls this the “False Victory,” the victory with unforeseen but inevitable consequences that will bring greater problems into the life of the Hero.
Midpoint (12:14 – 14:38): The next day, Victor pretends to go to school then sneaks up to the attic to feed Sparky. Sparky takes a drink and Victor notices water “leaking” from the “seams” in his neck. Though Sparky’s loving disposition is intact, we now see that scars crisscross his body and he has electric bolts in his neck that give him a “monstrous” appearance (Fun & Games details!). Victor becomes dimly aware that he now has a secret that’s going to be challenging to keep. He lapses into melancholia by the attic window, Sparky in his arms.
Bad Guys Close In (14:39 – 19:23): Sparky licks Victor and then, unnoticed by his master, leaves the house. We follow Sparky’s adventure outside where all of the “Neighborhood Opponents” are introduced in the melodramatic tone of Gothic Horror (Fun & Games!). Sparky is glimpsed by Victor’s buddies; he has an encounter with the fat lady Rose and her Dachshund Raymond; he’s spotted by the Next-Door Neighbor in his garage; he’s spotted again by Rose and the Next-Door Neighbor together; then he scares the Neighbor’s Daughter in her playhouse. [A side note about genres: though this story is clearly an Out of the Bottle fantasy, when it comes to the opposition, it resembles "Institutionalized" where the system being satirized is Suburbia. The Next-Door Neighbor is a ringer for The Company Man, the insider who is threatened by any departure from the status quo. This character will be the one who later rallies the neighbors into a bloodthirsty mob.] The daughter screams, which rouses Victor from his melancholia and alerts him to the fact that Sparky is missing. Just as Sparky races back into the house, Victor’s parents return home and are confronted by the Next-Door Neighbor and his terrorized Daughter who tell them they can’t let their “new dog” run loose and scare the neighborhood (the Daughter refers to it as a “monster” — more Fun & Games). Mom and Dad are mystified until they find Victor and Sparky in the attic. For Victor, this is a huge reversal for the worse, but also the inevitable consequence of his Break into Two decision.
All Is Lost (19:24 – 20:05): Mom and Dad confront Victor around the kitchen table. The “whiff of death” here is the death of Victor’s secret, but also the concept of “living death” — the phantasmagorical unknown — personified by the resurrected Sparky and the very thing his parents are struggling to understand. Victor attempts to explain why it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The theme is addressed directly, in dialogue, when Sparky licks Mom and Dad and Victor points out that Sparky still loves them. That night in bed, Mom and Dad move from fear to acceptance and become Victor’s allies again. They decide to let him keep Sparky, but to keep him secret.
Bad Guys Close In #2 (20:06 – 23:29): Now that Victor and his parents are realigned, the Opposition immediately arrays against them, so we have a story beat repeat as Bad Guys Close In all over again. When Victor and his Dad come out of the house that morning, they’re literally boxed in by suspicious neighbors to the right, left, out front, and across the street. Victor points out that “People are weird!” and “Sparky isn’t scary!” Dad agrees and comes up with the plan to introduce everyone to Sparky that night. Victor is skeptical, but Dad convinces him it’s the only way. That night, all the neighbors have gathered in Victor’s parents’ living room. Dad serves refreshments while Mom lovingly re-stitches Sparky’s seams (Fun & Games!) in preparation for his “reception.”
Dark Night of the Soul (23:30 – 24:54): Victor carries Sparky into the living room, but all the women scream! Sparky leaps out of Victor’s arms and causes pandemonium. Sparky runs away, followed by Victor, followed by his parents, then followed by the neighbors who are whipped into a mob by the Next-Door Neighbor who yells, “Let’s go get that thing! It attacked my daughter!” And Rose, in a running gag, screams, “And it tried to eat my Raymond!” In a sequence that fully delivers on Fun & Games, Sparky squeezes through the iron gates of an abandoned miniature golf course and climbs into a dilapidated miniature windmill, just the way the Monster took refuge in a dilapidated windmill in the original Frankenstein film. Victor screams from the gate, “Sparky!”
Break into Three (24:55 – 27:11): The A and B Stories merge as everyone converges on the windmill. Victor is committed to standing by Sparky, and climbs inside, finding Sparky at the topmost landing. The windmill is accidentally set on fire by one of the mob. Inside, Victor trips and falls through a trap door and is knocked unconscious, but Sparky saves him by pulling him free as the windmill goes up in flames. Sparky is pinned by a piece of fiery debris and killed. The Next-Door Neighbor, seeing what happened, has a sudden revelation: “It saved the kid’s life….” (Moment of Clarity = Transformation!) Victor revives and finds his beloved dog dead again. He is overwhelmed with despair. Oh, the horror!
Finale (27:12 – 28:39): In a fantastic demonstration of synthesis, the theme is delivered to a community transformed. The Hero Victor had succeeded in bringing his dead dog back to life through love and ingenuity (Transformation!), and succeeded in persuading his parents to accept it (Transformation!), and now the community as a whole, once an oppositional mob hell-bent on destroying Sparky, embraces resurrecting him again (Transformation!). Everyone is now aligned against a “new monster” — Sparky’s death! All the neighbors’ cars are moved into a circular formation, nose inwards. Victor lays Sparky at the center, awash in headlight beams. Dad comes forward with jumper cables from one side, the Next-Door Neighbor comes forward with jumpers from the other, literally converging on Sparky (Integration/Synthesis!). Everyone turns on their engines, and when it appears not to be working, Rose yells, “Give it more juice!” (Transformation! Synthesis!) Sparky awakes, Victor hugs him, joined by his parents and all the neighbors. What better or more graphic way of expressing a community coming together?
Final Image (28:39 – 29:04): Watching from inside one of the cars is a very special poodle with a Bride of Frankenstein lightning bolt streak in her black bouffant hair-do (Fun & Games!). She jumps out and runs to Sparky where they nuzzle nose-to-nose. This sets Sparky’s neck bolts sparking with electricity (Fun & Games!). Fat Rose says, “It’s love at first sight!” (Transformation!) As Sparky barks, his bolts continue to spark — t status quo? Just as Young Victor has fulfilled the legacy of his namesake, so Sparky is now truly “Sparky!” Fun & Games/ Transformation! Hooray!