Tim Burton reanimates his past in 'Frankenweenie'

When Tim Burton was an eager young animator and filmmaker working at Disney Studios in the early 1980s, he made an inventive live-action short film inspired by his childhood in Burbank and the love of a family dog. That 1984 short, “Frankenweenie,” which starred Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern, has now been turned into a 3-D stop-motion animated feature.

“It was great to be able to go back to the original and expand on it,” says Burton, who shot the short at Disney Studios in Burbank and on the streets of Pasadena. “This is such a memory piece for me. I started thinking about other kids I remember in school, and other aspects of the neighborhood I grew up in Burbank. We also expanded on the monster theme of the movie. All those new elements made it feel like a brand-new project.”

The story centers on a creative young boy named Victor who feels at odds with his cookie-cutter neighborhood. He finds solace in the amateur short films he makes and the love of his closest companion, his dog, Sparky. When tragedy strikes and he loses Sparky, Victor is inspired by lessons from his science teacher to bring his best friend back to life. While he tries to hide his new home-sewn creation, Sparky gets out and unleashes panic in the neighborhood.

It stands as one of Burton’s most personal films, combining childhood memories with his early love of classic black-and-white horror films. “It all stemmed from that remembrance of having that first pet. It’s such an important relationship and its unconditional love,” Burton explains. “The dog I had was not meant to live for very long. He had this disease distemper, so there was always this specter that he wasn’t going to be around for very long, even though the dog ended up living for quite a long time. That’s why it seemed so appropriate to hook it up to the Frankenstein story — that wish fulfillment of bringing something back or keeping something alive.”

The iconoclastic filmmaker, dressed in black, dark sunglasses fixed on his face, and a wave of unbrushed chaotic hair speckled with gray, now lives a world away from Burbank in Britain, but admits those early years had a great influence on him. “I think of it now with horror and fondness,” he says with a laugh. “It's where you're from so there's definitely warm and many positive feelings because it’s part of you.”

In the new feature, Victor’s parents (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) are perplexed by their son’s endeavors and try to push him in the direction of sports, but are ultimately portrayed as loving and supportive parents. It’s a slice of Burton’s own life.

“Well, I think they are more of an optimistic version,” he says with a laugh of the parents depicted in “Frankeweenie.” “I had a slightly more troubled relationship with my parents. My father was a professional baseball player at one point in his life and when he got injured he worked for the Burbank Park and Recreation department. So I got pushed into sports — which I wasn't the greatest at — but it's good to have experience of different things. My parents weren't quite as supportive as they are in the film, so it's a bit more of a fantasy.”

After attending Burbank High School, Burton studied at CalArts in nearby Valencia, graduating in 1979. His fellow students at the time included John Lasseter (CEO at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) and acclaimed animation directors Brad Bird (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) and Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline”)

Rick Heinrichs, production designer on the new “Frankenweenie,” also attended CalArts and worked with Burton on the original Disney short. “I was completely blown away by his originality and his ability to communicate these characters and environments,” says Heinrichs, who has collaborated with Burton on several films, including 1988’s “Beetlejuice” and this year’s “Dark Shadows.” “He could translate real emotions into a very inventive story.”

It was Heinrich’s job to recreate the Burbank surroundings Burton recalled. The sets were all built in a London studio, but Heinrichs says local residents will definitely recognize the design of the town. “There is a neighborhood aspect to it that is very Burbank, particularly in the center of town and how it looked in the ‘70s when Tim was growing up. There is the mid-century housing, and the way the houses are laid out, the school and the Town Hall we used as inspiration,” says Heinrichs.

“Well, it actually is quite accurate,” says Burton. “It’s different from the short which we shot in Pasadena. This way you could actually go more like the memory and the kind of architecture of Burbank, which really hasn't changed much over the years, so it was all just about trying to make it feel what it was like growing up there. It’s unlike any other project for me.”

The original short “Frankenweenie” kick-started Burton’s move into features, establishing his uniquely dark, quirky style beginning with 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and such later landmark films as 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands,” 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1992’s “Batman Returns.” And yet it was the last project Burton did for Disney for many years.

The “Frankenweenie” short was originally intended to be screened with an ‘80s re-release of “Pinocchio,” but the studio deemed it too dark. “They had difficulty figuring out how to fit it into their Disney vision,” says Heinrich. “I don’t think they really understood Tim then.”

Recalling the end of his early years at Disney, Burton admits, “Fired might be a strong word. Put it this way: they weren’t crying the day I left. I've been in and out of there many times. It's like revolving door policy — I’m always grateful because I got to do it and that was amazing. Whether or not it got shown, I was still always appreciative that they gave me the opportunity to do it.

“It’s been great to be back at Disney to do this as a feature,” he adds. “They embraced it from the beginning, even the notion of making it in black-and-white. I think at this stage they got what it was about and that at the heart of it, it's basically a classic Disney movie structure. It's a boy and his dog story that just happens to be a Frankenstein kind of thing.”

KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and pop culture for Marquee. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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