Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is shaping up to be an interesting mix of “Ewwwww!’s” as well as “Awwwww’s.”
His latest stop-motion gothic-fest (rendered in 1950s-style black-and-white as well as 3-D) tells the story of a little boy named Victor, who loves his pet dog Sparky more than anything in the world. Naturally – or rather, unnaturally – Victor decides to use his science kit to bring the pup back from the grave after an accident claims the pooch’s life.
As with Mary Shelley’s original 1818 tale of men playing god and science run amok, pandemonium follows the creation of the “monster,” who in this case is just a stitched-up, resurrected undead buddy.
Many know that Burton lost his job as an artist at The Walt Disney Co. for making this dark comedy as a live-action short in 1984, but few know the true story from Burton’s past that inspired it. As Halloween approaches, EW reveals that long-ago tale, along with first-look stills from the movie.
The original concept was basic: take the standard, beloved tale of a boy and his dog – then twist it into creepy, comedic shapes. “It just tries to keep that idea of a very, simple pure relationship,” he says. What’s more pure than the story of a kid and his first pet?
“Mix that with the Frankenstein myth,” Burton adds with a chuckle, “and it causes problems.” But the big beating heart in the story (apart from the re-animated one inside Frankenweenie’s chest) is the sad fact that we all outlive those four-legged pals from our childhood, and goodbye can be a painful thing. The idea of bringing a lost friend back to life? “It has its good side and repercussions,” Burton says. “Ultimately, we try to go with the slightly more positive aspects of keeping that [boy-and-his-dog] relationship going.”
Frankenweenie, though a stitched-together hodgepodge and scientific abomination, is ultimately still a cute little bugger. The goofy name itself was chosen to suggest something harmless. “It’s like a small pet name, a hot-dog kind of thing,” Burton says.
When he originally created the idea for his 1984 short, it was buried for 10 years after Disney executives found it too weird to release. After The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, a lot has changed. The movie Disney once fired Burton for making is now being remade as one of their most important titles of next year.
As for what happened in 1984? “I don’t know, they got freaked out or something, but they still allowed me to make the film,” Burton says. “Even though I was frustrated about the release – or not release of it – it was still a great experience, and did a lot for me, so I couldn’t really complain.” That short became a calling card that led to his first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and all that followed.
As outlandish as Frankenweenie was, it also had roots in a real-life pet dog Burton had while growing up in Burbank. “It’s such an unconditional relationship,” Burton recalls. “A lot of kids have that experience – I certainly had that experience with a first pet. You’ll probably never have it again in your life in that way, it’s so pure and memorable.”
“His name was Pepe – we lived in a Spanish neighborhood,” Burton recalls. “Our dog had this thing called distemper, and wasn’t supposed to live more than a couple of years. He lived much longer than that, which kind of fed into this Frankenstein mythology as well.”
What kind of dog was Pepe? “It was a mix, kind of a mutt, with a bit of terrier, and a bit of something else,” Burton says. “I don’t know what it was. It was kind of a mixture.”
That adds to Frankenstein mythology too.
It’s a surprisingly sweet origin for a lovingly weird movie. (Admit it, you were expecting something much stranger.)
Above we see a look at the adorable dog Sparky before the accident that claims his life, leading to his monster moniker of Frankenweenie. “He doesn’t have any stitches yet,” Burton laughs. “That’s only a short part of the film. Don’t get too used to that look.”
Frankenweenie, with voices by Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Landau, will be in theaters Oct. 5, 2012.