Nearly three decades after the completion of his original live-action short film of the same name, iconic director Tim Burton’s is thrilled that he’s getting the chance to unleash his pet project — the stop-motion animated version of “Frankenweenie” — the way he originally wanted audiences to see it.
In a recent interview, Burton told me his reincarnated version of “Frankenweenie” — about a boy named Victor Frankenstein who brings his dead dog back to life via some creative stitchery and powerful lightning bolts — not only revives the heart of the original tale (or is it tail?), but expands upon his original idea.
Slideshow: Tim Burton behind the scenes
The interesting thing is, the narrative wasn’t born out of something Burton had written, but characters and settings that came to life through his artwork.
“The movie goes back to the original drawings. I was happy and loved doing the live-action film, which was great because it shaped my career in some ways,” Burton told me. “But the idea of going back to the drawings was some important to me. Also, it allowed me to explore it in stop-motion and black-and-white, which captured the feeling of it.”
Most exciting to Burton is that the new film expands its classic monster movie motif.
“If the original ‘Frankenweenie’ was like ‘Frankenstein,’ then the new ‘Frankenweenie’ is like ‘The House of Frankenstein.’ There are other kids and other monsters in it. It provides a mix like you had in those movies, like when Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” Burton explained. “It’s like when all the characters are thrown together, like ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.’ It was fun to expand on things that way, but still keep the essence of the story.”
Of course, Burton knew that if he were truly to capture the feeling of those films, there was one critical element that had to be addressed with the studio producing it: the film’s color, or more specifically, the lack thereof.
Luckily for Burton the studio was Disney, which in 1984 produced the “Frankenweenie” film short, and most recently released his 2010 blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland.”
“It was so nice to do it in black-and-white because it was one of the final issues for me,” Burton enthused. “If somebody had said, ‘You can do the movie, but you have to do it in color,’ I wouldn’t have done that. I was lucky there was no real resistance to it. In fact, it was positive.”
Perhaps more thrilled than anybody that “Frankenweenie” was filmed in black-and-white was Martin Landau, who won an Oscar under Burton’s direction for his performance of monster movie legend Bela Lugosi in the 1994 black-and-white cult-classic “Ed Wood.”
In “Frankenweenie,” Landau voices Mr. Rzykruski, an imposing, Eastern European science teacher who inadvertently sparks the idea in Victor to use lightning to jolt his dog, Sparky, back to life.
“Going back to Ed Wood, Ed obviously never made a color movie — I mean he used ends of film rolls to complete his movies — and Lugosi never made a color movie, so it would have been totally inappropriate to have made ‘Ed Wood’ in color,” Landau told me in a separate interview. “That’s why Tim moved the film from Columbia to Disney, because Disney let him do it that way. Now, with ‘Frankenweenie’ — put it this way, since ‘Steamboat Willie,’ you haven’t seen a lot of black-and-white animated movies.”
New in theaters in 2D and 3D and on IMAX screens Friday, “Frankenweenie,” also stars the voices of Burton movie veterans Winona Ryder, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, as well as Charlie Tahan as Victor and Atticus Shaffer as his creepy friend, Edgar E. Gore.
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“Frankenweenie” is a very personal film for the 54-year-old Burton, and it’s mostly reflected in the film’s suburban California setting. Of course, since the film is fantastical in nature it’s not entirely autobiographical, but there are several elements in it from his childhood in Burbank.
“It was a real memory piece in the sense that everything was based on someone or something, or remembering a certain kind of kid in school or teacher or place,” Burton recalled. “Pretty much everything was run through the idea of those memories.”
Also true was that Burton had a dog that he loved and lost, a strong emotional feeling that most audience members will be able to relate to, no matter what type of pet they had as a child or as an adult.
“That what the film’s initial impulses were based on, going back to the root of what it was all about, which is the first relationship with a pet that is so powerful and so strong,” Burton said. “It’s such a unique kind of thing. It was the first experience I had with death, except for seeing it in movies.”
Happily, for the purposes of “Frankenweenie,” Sparky is brought back to life a la “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelly’s monstrous methods. But things go haywire when Victor’s secret gets out to his classmates, who revive their own late pets with disastrous results.
The fact that the film was stop-motion animated — where the characters are moved ever-so-slightly to be filmed one frame at a time — clearly brought a synergy to a story about re-animation.
“That’s why it’s important to do the right project in the right medium,” said Burton, the creative force behind the stop-motion animated gems “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.” “That’s why it didn’t feel like revisiting a short film, but visiting a whole different project, being able to do it in stop-motion. The process itself is like bringing Frankenstein to life, so it made a whole lot of sense to do it in that form of animation.”
Landau said it was inspiring watching Burton during the creation of “Frankenweenie” because he knew how much the film meant to his friend and colleague.
“Stop-motion animation is so hands-on as opposed to computers — you have to move the characters 24 times for one second of film — and Tim was very hands on with this film,” Landau said. “It was really a labor of love for him. He never lost his incentive to make this film. He was a kid at Cal Arts and went on to work at Disney, where he made the live-action short. But it never fulfilled his vision. And now, he’s made the movie the way he wanted to after 28 years. It’s terrific.”
Without question, “Frankenweenie” is Tim Burton’s definitive monster movie, presented in glorious black-and-white, and accented with shadows and light that made those films in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s so iconic. In the end, the filmmaker couldn’t be any more grateful to have had the opportunity to recapture the atmosphere of the days where the names Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney lit up the marquees.
“To be able to have those monsters in black-and-white made it feel like I was going back in time,” Burton enthused. “I was making the things that inspired me.”
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