By Rafer Guzman
Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton’s new stop-motion animated feature for Walt Disney Pictures which comes out Friday, opens with a young boy, Victor, watching a homemade movie. The star happens to be his dog, Sparky, who rescues miniature townsfolk from a Godzilla-like monster, a foreshadowing of things to come.
Victor, a lonely kid with an attic full of film equipment and a wild imagination, may seem like an obvious stand-in for Burton. That turns out to be only half-right. When it comes to monster movies and horror flicks _ the stuff that a young Burton grew up on _ the director’s strongest empathies actually lie with the monsters.
“The monster for me was the most emotional character. It’s that feeling that kids have, that you’re different and you’re misunderstood and misperceived by society,” says Burton, speaking by phone from a
Disneyland hotel last weekend. “It puts an image to the feelings that you have. And the movies were the safest way to explore those feelings.”
Burton’s identification issues may explain why the 54-year-old director has been able to translate his strange visions and grisly sense of humor into unlikely crowd-pleasers and family-friendly blockbusters over a three-decade career.
His early films, like “Beetlejuice,” starring a young and moody Winona Ryder, and “Edward Scissorhands,” featuring a de-prettified Johnny Depp, helped introduce a Goth-rock aesthetic into mainstream culture and made mopey outsiders seem cooler than the cool kids. Burton was one of the first filmmakers to tap into the dark side of superheroes with 1989’s “Batman,” and his 1993 stop-motion production, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” remains a gold standard for twisted whimsy.
“Frankenweenie,” his 16th film as a director, is a quintessential Burton tale, in which little Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) zaps his dead dog back to life during a furious lightning storm. (Martin Landau plays Victor’s creepy but inspirational science teacher; Ryder can be heard as the girl next door, Elsa van Helsing.) Despite the stark, black-and-white photography and dramatic camera angles, “Frankenweenie” is also a quintessential Disney film, in which love and kindness win the day and even science has an undercurrent of magic.
There’s an irony to all this. As a fledgling animator at Walt Disney Productions in the 1980s, Burton grew bored with bland output like “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) and began working on his own side projects, including a 1984 live-action short called “Frankenweenie.” (The cast included Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and a very young Sofia Coppola.) Though little seen, it’s now known as the movie that reportedly led to Burton and Disney parting ways.
Burton and Disney would reunite over the years, though sometimes warily. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was initially released under Touchstone, Disney’s banner for more mature films, though posters for 1996’s “James and the Giant Peach” finally featured Walt Disney’s curly, golden signature of approval. “Alice in Wonderland,” Burton’s 2010 smash, also was distributed through Disney.
Burton, asked whether the horror-movie conventions of “Frankenweenie” may be too scary for children, sounds more than a little exasperated. “I’ve done this my whole life,” he says. “I remember with the original short, people said, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is too weird!’ They showed ‘Pinocchio’ afterward, and kids were running screaming from the theater because it was too scary. I kept thinking: This company was founded on movies that were light and dark, that’s why they’re powerful. That’s why the movies become a part of you.”