In 1982 Tim Burton had been working as a conceptual artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios for about two years. Samples of his work at the time already reflected a uniqueness, a fairy-tale strangeness. This was recognized by Tom Wilhite, Disney Head of Development, who gave him $60,000 to make Vincent, a 5-minute stop-motion short based on a poem Burton had written in the style of Dr. Seuss, his favorite children’s book author. In fact, he’d originally intended Vincent to be a children’s book.
Burton says he was given the money to make the film under the studio radar as a stop-motion “test.” He worked on Vincent for two months with Disney animator Rich Heinrichs and stop-motion animator Steven Chiodo. Vincent is narrated by Vincent Price, one of Burton’s childhood idols. This was the beginning of a friendship lasting until Price died in 1993. Burton: “We sent Vincent Price the storyboards and asked him to do the narration, and he was incredible… It’s a scary proposition meeting someone who helped you through childhood, who had that effect on you, especially when you’re sending them something that’s showing that impact in a kind of cheesy, children’s book kind of way. But he was so great.”
Shot in black & white in a style reminiscent of German Expressionist films, Vincent concern a boy, Vincent Malloy, who emulates Vincent Price and is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The film alternates between Vincent’s reality as a little boy and his imagined life inside Poe’s tales.
Burton: “They (Disney) wanted it to have a more upbeat ending, but I never saw it as being downbeat in any way. It’s funny, I think it’s more uplifting if things are left to your imagination. I always saw those tacked-on happy endings as psychotic in a way.”
Vincent was shown at film festivals in London, Chicago, and Seattle, winning two awards in Chicago and the Critic’s Prize at the Annecy Film Festival in France. It was released theatrically for two weeks in a single Los Angeles theater with the feature Tex, a teen drama with Matt Dillon, directed by Tim Hunter. Burton says Disney was pleased with the film, but didn’t really know what to do with it.
In 1984, with a much larger budget of nearly $1 million dollars, Burton made Frankenweenie, a 25-minute life-action film inspired by James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931), written by Lenny Ripp from a story by Burton (a new Frankenweenie was released earlier this year in an expanded, feature-length stop-motion version in 3D). The “weenie” of Frankenweenie is a snappy bull terrier named Sparky, who gets run over by a car while chasing a ball thrown by his master, young Victor Frankenstein. This breaks Victor’s heart, who manages to bring Sparky back to life, albeit with much stitching and bolts in Sparky’s neck.
The film takes place in Southern California suburbia, much like the setting of one of Burton’s strongest films, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Per Burton, “Growing up watching those horror movies, for some reason, I was able to make direct links, emotionally, between that whole Gothic/Frankenstein/Edgar Allan Poe thing and growing up in suburbia. Frankenweenie was just another outgrowth of that.”
Frankenweenie was initially intended to play with the re-release of Pinocchio, but was shelved by Disney, apparently freaked out that it had received a PG rating instead of a G rating. It received a limited release in England, and was made available on video prior to the release of Burton’s Batman Returns in 1992.
I was aware of Frankenweenie, had probably read about it in a film magazine, but don’t recall when or where I first saw it, though I remember liking it a lot. I was looking forward to the longer feature version this year, but was disappointed when I finally saw it. The new film is incredibly well made, filled with very clever detail, and fun to look at, but there’s something lacking for me. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it more, but it just didn’t capture my imagination the way my favorite Burton films have, such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood.
Here are Vincent and the original live-action Frankenweenie together.
To give you some contrast, here’s a trailer for the new feature-length, stop-motion Frankenweenie.
I feel a strong connection to Tim Burton’s way of seeing the world. His love of horror and science-fiction films when he was growing up matches my own from the earliest age I can remember. His films reflect a childlike spirit, wonderfully twisted at times and refreshingly morbid (Corpse Bride, anyone?). Even the films that don’t work have moments of unique strangeness and originality that make them worth seeing. He definitely got my attention with his first feature, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which seemed quite magical to me. Burton’s sensibility was perfectly matched with that of Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman. It’s hard to imagine two people more attuned to each other.
From November 2009 to April 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective of Tim Burton’s work, including early illustrations, paintings, artifacts, bizarre props, as well as screenings of his films. This show was incredibly popular, drawing the third-highest attendence of any exhibition in MoMA’s history. Nonetheless, I managed to miss it, despite repeated plans to go. Here’s an interview done with Burton at the time, which includes examples of his amazing drawings.
Finally, in the spirit of name dropping, here’s my Tim Burton story. In 1999 I was working for a subtitling company here in the city. The wife of a co-worker was reviewing films for a radio show in Pennsylvania. She asked me to attend a pre-release screening of Burton’s new film, Sleepy Hollow, and cover for her at a press junket that Sunday morning at a hotel on Park Avenue, recording the Q&A with Burton and the cast. I was thrilled to do this, though fearful I’d somehow screw up the recording (I didn’t). The way these things work is that there are different rooms set up for the various media; i.e. television, print, radio, and whatever else. Burton and the cast would go from room to room one at a time to sit at the head of a table and be asked basically the same questions they’d just been asked in the previous room. It was quite exciting to be seated two chairs away from Christina Ricci (porcelain skin!), Johnny Depp, Michel Gambon, and finally Tim Burton. I hadn’t intended to say anything, but couldn’t keep my mouth shut and asked a few questions. I remember asking Burton what it was like for him having the Hammer Films star, Christopher Lee (Dracula himself) in the film. Unfortunately, I remember my question, but not his answer. Okay, maybe not that great a story, but it was a thrill to be part of a different world for even a couple of hours. – Ted Hicks
The quotes I’ve used are from a very informative book of Tim Burton interviews, Burton on Burton, edited by Mark Salisbury, with a foreward by frequent Burton collaborator, Johnny Depp. The 2nd revised edition, published in 2006 by Faber & Faber, covers Burton’s films through Corpse Bride. His films are available via Netflix and Amazon.