LOS ANGELES — The sound of brass and wind instruments rang out with a triumphant blast, echoing down a corridor and around a hallway where Tim Burton was seated inside a pavilion where a traveling exhibition devoted to his new movie, “Frankenweenie,” was on display. When the music was simply too loud to ignore, Burton took a moment to quip: “I hope you don’t mind, I’m rehearsing my new band. Up With People.”
Such are the perils of promoting a movie at the happiest place on Earth. On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, Burton was fielding questions at Disney’s California Adventure about his latest stop-motion animated film, a feature-length revision of a short he made in 1984. The black-and-white 3-D movie, which opens in theaters Friday, keeps the same premise: A young boy from the suburbs borrows a page from Mary Shelley’s famous mad scientist to resurrect his beloved bull terrier Sparky after he’s hit by a car.
“Frankenweenie” features plenty of homages to classic monster movies — those produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s, atomic horror from the 1950s; there’s even a cameo from Christopher Lee as Dracula in one of England’s Hammer Film productions.
But looking down on the miniature artifacts represented in the “Art of Frankenweenie” exhibit — replicas of record players, plastic Christmas decorations and resin grapes scattered among the sketches and models — Burton made sure to note that the movie geek references were just window-dressing for a very personal story about processing grief and coping with loss.
“I was a boy once,” Burton, 54, said of his personal investment in the story. “I had a dog. It was based on that first kind of pure relationship. It was quite unconditional, your first love in a way. He also had this thing called distemper — they said he wasn’t going to live for very long, and he ended up living quite a long time, but there was always this specter hanging over. You’re a kid, you don’t really understand it, but that’s where the whole thing sort of stemmed from.”
“Frankenweenie” has almost all the trappings that have become so synonymous with Burton’s works, though frequent collaborator Johnny Depp is conspicuously absent from the film’s cast of voice actors. The movie unfolds from the vantage point of a lovable outsider named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), another in a long line of misunderstood protagonists dreamed up by Burton, who dwells in a high-contrast realm of misfits and oddballs.
Victor’s facial features and sartorial choices hearken back to characters such as Jack Skellington (“I have a very limited drawing style,” Burton said), and he shares the Pumpkin King’s penchant for unintentional mischief-making.
A solitary — though not unhappy — boy, Victor spends his time inventing and playing with his best friend, Sparky. He finds an ally in his consonant-laden science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) who, with a single lesson, inadvertently gives Victor the idea to resurrect his dog after tragedy strikes.
Before long, the other children on the block, eager to make their own mark at the upcoming science fair, are using electricity in ways Benjamin Franklin never intended, and soon a monster squad is terrorizing the town. Burton said he liked the idea of placing a menagerie of unusual creatures together in one story as a way to organically expand the short.
“All those other characters and memories and that kind of structure made it feel like it was a different movie and a complete movie and not just a padded-out kind of movie,” Burton said. “It took this canvas and kind of broadened it out.”
Victor’s hometown of New Holland is an obvious stand-in for Burton’s native Burbank, though it’s an American suburbia that exists out of time. Victor’s dad is a travel agent and his mom stays at home baking cookies and vacuuming the house. They both love their boy, even if they fall short of understanding him.
That sense of the functional nuclear family is quite literally on display in the exhibit’s large rectangular case that holds the painstakingly detailed kitchen set. The oven door is ajar while Victor’s mom stands at the counter, her husband, son and a living, barking Sparky seated around the table. There are magnets on the refrigerator, a knife block in the shape of a duck perched on the counter, a bright orange glass of juice, or maybe Tang, in front of Victor.
The splash of color is one of few in the entire exhibit, which contains three specific sets all rendered in various shades of grayscale — the kitchen, Victor’s science classroom and the attic where he conducts his controversial experiments. In addition to a re-created version of Burton’s desk, complete with a set of black-framed reading glasses on top of script pages, there are also character sketches, photographs and various maquettes — the puppets that were used during the production to bring the story to life.
“Frankenweenie” was shot over the course of 21/2 years inside a converted warehouse in East London close to where the newly constructed Olympic stadium was built. About 200 puppets — including 16 Sparkys (eight dead, eight alive), 14 Victors and such new creations as Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara, who also voices Victor’s mother) — were manufactured for the production.
Burton reunited with producer Allison Abbate and animation director Trey Thomas, both of whom worked on the filmmaker’s earlier stop-motion projects, “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”
Although stop-motion is enjoying a new vogue — “Frankenweenie” is the third such animated movie to open in three months, coming on the heels of Laika Studios’ zombie comedy “ParaNorman” and an English-language version of the Czech film “Toys in the Attic” — expertise in the specific subset of the animation world is hard to come by. Patience is a must; it can sometimes take an animator one week to complete a single shot.
Their unique skill sets make it easier for them to practically translate Burton’s ideas to the screen, which was especially important for this film, the director said. The entire movie was filtered through the lens of his memories of people and places, though it’s another longtime Burton colleague, John August (“Big Fish,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Corpse Bride”), who wrote the screenplay.
“There’s a few movies that were very much in my mind, like ‘(Edward) Scissorhands’ or this or ‘Nightmare,’ where I just felt like I knew what it was and so when you’re working with a writer sometimes it helps to confirm or flesh it out,” Burton said. “It’s just nice to bounce off of something. ... Also, because I’m kind of hermetically sealed, sometimes it’s good to have a little bit of a link to the outside world.”
Before it concludes its international itinerary, “The Art of Frankenweenie,” which will be on display at the Anaheim theme park through Nov. 5, will have visited seven countries — Spain, France, England, Japan, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. Burton is optimistic that it will provide a window into the hand-made, tactile artform that won him over early on thanks to the pioneering efforts of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien.
“I like Disney animated films, they’re great, great artistry and all that, but I think (Harryhausen’s) movies were the ones… there’s something about the dimensional power and the handmade quality of it, even as crude as it comes across. It’s still got a power in it.”
Burton’s passion might have infused “Frankenweenie” with a new creative energy. After the movie’s premiere this month at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, Indiewire described it as a “rousing return to form” for the filmmaker, whose other 2012 directorial effort, the cult soap opera “Dark Shadows,” fared poorly with critics.
At this point in his career, he’s become inured somewhat to the critical reception, positive or negative, to his movies, though Burton says he still feels “quite vulnerable” when a new film is about to open. “I don’t really read things. My history is such that I’ve had really good and really bad (reviews). Let’s put it this way. I know what’s going on, I know what the general gist of things are. I’ve also had things where it gets great reviews and then nobody goes to see the movie and (bad) reviews and it makes a zillion dollars. You can’t really predict anything.”
As for what’s next for Burton, he’s not ready to say, politely brushing aside questions about the many projects he’s been linked to. With a number of interviews left to complete in advance of “Frankenweenie’s” Los Angeles premiere, Burton seemed like a creative mind in need of a break. The last several years have seen him produce a considerable amount of work at a breakneck pace, and he’s ready to slow down.
This moment might be as good a place to pause as any. “Frankenweenie” stands as an unusual love letter to Burton’s Burbank past and experiences he might not want to repeat but ones that nevertheless shaped his identity.
“Where you’re from, I don’t think I could live there again, but I wouldn’t change anything because it’s part of who you are,” Burton said. “You’ve got to kind of love it, there’s a dark romantic feel for it.”