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I can’t think to describe Tim Burton any other way except to say that he looks exactly the way you’d expect. Wild tendrils of hair snaking out in all directions; large dark sunglasses perched above a long nose; dusky layers of clothing cloaked about a lanky form. Indeed, judging from appearances alone, the celebrated writer/director is still the same idiosyncratic art-school graduate all the goth kids fell in love with back in the ’80s and ’90s, only now a couple of decades older and, yes, wealthier.
I and a small group of other journalists sat down with Burton at Santa Monica’s swanky Casa del Mar hotel over the weekend after viewing 26 minutes of “Frankenweenie” footage hand-picked by the director himself. All of it was gorgeous, spectacular, breathtaking; a finely-detailed black-and-white universe in which the Burton aesthetic bleeds through every frame.
Created using the stop-motion animation technique Burton previously employed for his 1982 short “Vincent”, 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (directed by Henry Selick) and 2005’s “Corpse Bride,” “Frankenweenie” is a feature-length remake of the 1984 live-action short of the same name, produced during the filmmaker’s tenure as a young animator at Walt Disney Studios.
Sitting down to write this piece, I was surprised to stumble across a bit of trivia that Burton was actually fired by Disney following his completion of the original “Frankenweenie”. As the story goes, the studio was angered with the young director for wasting their resources on a film they deemed “too scary” for children.
How accurate this bit of information is I have no idea, but if it is true, and if the film was indeed intended as a companion piece to a 1984 theatrical re-release of “Pinocchio” (another part of the unsourced story), it makes me wonder just how Disney managed to justify that film’s genuinely nightmare-inducing Pleasure Island sequence as kid-friendly while simultaneously casting a wary eye on Burton’s essentially sweet-natured effort.
Of course, what absolutely is true is that the company failed to give “Frankenweenie” a proper release until a full ten years after it was produced (it was put out on VHS in 1994), and only in the wake of Burton’s continued mainstream success. Even the eyes of undead dogs, it seems, can look like dollar signs given the right conditions.
This new animated version of “Frankenweenie” is something that has existed in Burton’s head, more or less, since he originally conceived of the idea in the early 1980s. However, lacking the resources to create the feature-length stop-motion film he originally envisioned, the 20-something Cal Arts grad was forced to tell the story as a live-action short – something he now realizes was probably a blessing in disguise.
“I’m kinda grateful that that was live-action,” said Burton, partially hidden (from my vantage point) behind the puppet of a comically long-faced science teacher that was used in the film. “Cause if it had been animation…I probably wouldn’t have gotten into live-action. So it was a very kind of lucky break in a way.”
I’ll say. From his successful 1985 debut “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” to the billion-dollar-grossing “Alice in Wonderland,” the live-action format has been very good to Burton, and yet “Frankenweenie” is an altogether more personal effort of the sort that won him his rabidly-devoted cult of followers to begin with. Partially based on his experiences growing up as an introspective, artistic kid in the sunny Burbank suburbs, the film is clearly a labor of love that harkens back to a formative experience from Burton’s childhood years, only merged with a classic monster plot that functions as an homage to the “Frankenstein” story he so deeply connected with in his youth.
In fact, the main character in “Frankenweenie” – a pre-teen boy named Victor Frankenstein who reanimates his beloved dog Sparky after the animal is run over by a car – seems a rather obvious stand-in for the director himself.
“I recall that sort of first relationship with a pet, usually, where it’s sort of that unconditional…you know, walk out the door and you walk back in and it’s like you’ve been away for three years,” said Burton, intermittently playing with the delicate tail of a Sparky puppet sitting on the table in front of him. “There’s the first kind of pure relationship, and then the first death that you…that I experienced. …So I think that’s where the story came from, was the idea of never forgetting that emotion and the trauma of losing that kind of relationship, but easily relating it to the ‘Frankenstein’ story, which is another love. So it was easy to kind of marry the two things without it seeming like a stretch.”
The personal nature of “Frankenweenie” was also what prompted Burton to keep the process of creating the film as intimate and scaled-down as possible, keeping the size of the crew to a minimum and utilizing the voice talents of some of his most cherished collaborators (Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Martin Short and Winona Ryder among them).
“It’s such a personal thing that I kinda wanted to do whatever I could to keep it personal,” he said. “I mean, always with [the idea] that the voices have to be right. So obviously with Martin [Short] and Catherine, they’re so good, that’s why I had them do like three voices each, because to me there’s such a great energy with that. And Winona I hadn’t seen for many years…and Martin [Landau]. So it was important…anything like that just makes it that much more personal.”
Personal. It’s a word that was spoken a lot during the brief 20 minutes we had with Burton, and one that’s certainly thrown around far too liberally in the bullshit-artist haven that Hollywood undoubtedly is. And yet Burton’s unique creative stamp is all over “Frankenweenie,” from the story and characters themselves to the very use of the stop-motion animation technique he helped revive as a fashionable alternative with “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“It hasn’t really changed, it hasn’t really changed since the beginning of film, you know?” said Burton of the technique. “That’s kind of the great thing about it. You know, there’s a few [new] little tools that help. But that’s…I think that the great thing about [stop-motion] is that it doesn’t change. And I think the people that like doing it, that’s the thing that they like about it. You know what I mean? Technology…there’s a few things to make it slightly easier to kind of gauge and monitor, but for the most part [it’s the same.]”
This realm of the constant is where “Frankenweenie”‘s story also lives, employing the setting of a sunny post-war American suburb to illuminate some uncomfortable and yet immutable truths about human society, and how the facades we construct to conceal those truths are never as far from crumbling as we’d like to believe they are.
“I think that’s why I always related the ‘Frankenstein’ story to my own upbringing – because it was so easy to make the angry villagers your neighbors,” said Burton. “‘Cause there was that kind of mentality. There was a kind of angry mob mentality every now and then, to kind of rear up. So it was all stuff that seemed ]like] even though it was in a ‘Frankenstein’ movie, seemed like real life too. What’s real and not real is quite a blurry line in some ways.”
“Frankenweenie” hits theaters on October 5.
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