Tim Burton, Frankenweenie, and How to Get Fired by Disney

Kurdt LongBlog

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Was Tim Burton fired by Disney? Oh, it’s quite a tail (and a head, and some stitching).

Nowadays, the name “Tim Burton” is one that’s synonymous with many Disney heavy-hitters, including Alice in Wonderland, James and the Giant Peach, and of course, The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

Believe it or not, Tim Burton was actually fired from Disney in 1984 for the very same reasons he’s beloved today.

Back in the early ’80s, when he was still fresh out of college and a new face at Disney’s animation studio, things weren’t quite as they are now. 

Disney, by and large, was a far more conservative company back then, just barely beginning to transition from “G” to “PG.” Burton’s eccentric taste for the strange and macabre didn’t quite resonate with “the suits.”

Early Beginnings

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Early versions of Jack Skellington (left) and the Sandworm (right) make a cameo in Vincent. Image courtesy of Disney

Like many of the animators and illustrators working for Disney, Burton was a graduate of The California Institute of the Arts.

Burton’s work in college caught Disney’s attention, and by 1981 he was already employed at their animation studio working as what else- an animator.

Despite not being credited on the films, Burton’s initial tenure at Disney saw him working on both The Fox and the Hound and Tron.

His work was enough to get him recognized by a couple of Disney executives, who allotted him a small sum of cash to develop a short film of his own based on a poem he had written. 

Vincent is Very Tim Burtony

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Vincent loses himself in his macabre daydreams. Image courtesy of Disney

This came to be known as Vincent, a short stop-animation film that followed a boy named Vincent that wants nothing more than to BE Vincent Price, narrated by Price himself.

While not anywhere close to what would be considered “Disney material” for the time, the short film was nonetheless a strong first effort from Burton as a director. 

Vincent is only about five minutes long, so let’s see how many Nightmare Before Christmas prototypes you can spot:

Vincent received accolades and awards, and Burton would frequently reference it in his future works.

Fire Burn and Black Cauldron Bubble

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The Black Cauldron is truly frightening at times. Image courtesy of Disney

Despite Vincent’s relative success, the short film only saw a small, limited release in a single Los Angeles movie theatre before being locked away into the Disney Vault.

However, Burton’s effort on the film was not overlooked. He was given additional work as both an animator and a concept artist for Disney’s next feature animated feature, The Black Cauldron.

Not-so-affectionately known as the “black sheep of Disney films,” The Black Cauldron suffered a number of issues during production. 

Creative differences between personnel led to animators leaving the project. After a screening of the film in 1984, Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg marched down to the editing room and started to cut the “scarier” scenes himself- It wasn’t until Disney CEO Michael Eisner stepped in that Katzenberg relented. Still, over 12 minutes of footage ended up being cut from the film.

The Black Cauldron was a commercial and critical flop, with critics citing flat characters, scary visuals, and sloppy jumps in the animation as key reasons for the film’s failure. 

However, while production on The Black Cauldron was wrapping up, Burton was already hard at work on a project of his own. 

A Boy and His Dog

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Nothing can keep a boy and his dog apart, not even death. Image courtesy of Disney

While the troubled production wrapped up on The Black Cauldron in 1984, Tim Burton had managed to secure a budget for another short film through Disney. 

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie clocks in at just under half an hour and the cast included Shelley Duvall (The Shining), Sofia Coppola (Director, Lost in Translation), and Daniel Stern (Home Alone).

It follows the story of a young Victor Frankenstein living in a picturesque white-picket-fence suburban neighborhood.

All is well until his dog, Sparky, is struck by a car right in front of him. 

As characters named Frankenstein often tend to do, he sneaks out in the night to raid the grave of his former friend and straps the corpse to a table hooked up to a number of improvised electronic instruments. 

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The first of many spooky cemeteries to make an appearance in a Tim Burton film. Image courtesy of Disney

One bolt of lightning later, and Victor’s pal is back to wagging his tail just as he did before the accident, just with a few more stitches (and from the looks of things, pieces of other people’s dogs). 

From there, the film plays just as any other Frankenstein’s Monster story would, but instead of angry villagers, you have paranoid neighbors. Instead of a fearsome, misunderstood monster, there’s a spry, happy, reanimated pup.

While the film hearkens back to the golden age of the silver screen both in style and substance, Disney executives weren’t as impressed with the final product. 

Trouble with the Suits

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How I imagine the executives looked after watching Frankenweenie and The Black Cauldron. Image courtesy of Disney

Frankenweenie was meant to accompany the theatrical re-releases of The Jungle Book and Pinocchio, but after reviewing the film, the execs deemed that it was far too scary for the children that would be filling the theaters. 

The film was shelved, placed into the Disney vault alongside Vincent, and Burton was accused of “wasting money” on a kid’s film too scary to actually be seen by kids.

Tim Burton was fired from Disney after completing the film, stating that “It was a ‘thank you very much, but you go your way, and we’ll go our way’ kind of thing.”

Given that Frankenweenie was completed just after the disastrous 1984 screening of The Black Cauldron, it’s no surprise that Disney would want to distance themselves from yet another film that was “too scary.”

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Frankenweenie saw a new life in the home video market. Image courtesy of Disney

However, after the success of Tim Burton’s work on Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman, Disney warmed up to Frankenweenie, finally giving it a home release in 1992. 

Frankenweenie Returns

Twenty years later, moviegoers finally got the opportunity to see Victor and Sparky’s story on the big screen with the release of the 2012 stop motion film, also titled Frankenweenie.

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Frankenweenie had a happy ending, onscreen and off. Image courtesy of Disney

Nowadays, if you want to see the original live-action Frankenweenie, it’s available on Disney+ and as a bonus feature (along with Vincent) on DVD and Blu-ray copies of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

What do you think? Is Frankenweenie really that scary? Do you think Tim Burton would have been fired if The Black Cauldron wasn’t such a disaster? Tell us what you think over on our Facebook page, and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you never miss out on in-depth dives into the Disney vault just like this!

About the Author

Kurdt Long

Kurdt is an avid Disney fan and full-time computer geek, working as both tech support at home and as the web producer of WDW Magazine. His favorite WDW park is Hollywood Studios, and his favorite Disney "princess" is H.R. Giger's Alien.