by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Most kids can relate to the devastating loss of a childhood pet.
But for a young Tim Burton, the death of his beloved dog was the spark behind a tale so powerful that the adult director felt compelled to resurrect it decades later. The rise of Frankenweenie marks Burton's deeply personal depiction of a boy who brings his deceased dog back to life.
The black-and-white, stop-motion animated film pays frequent lighthearted tribute to classic horror movies, but the love story between a boy and his dog is the very heart of the movie.
"That was the impulse for the whole thing, remembering the dog," says Burton. "It's like your first love. It's the first time you experience those kinds of feelings. With the right pet, it's all very pure."
In Frankenweenie, this pure love is apparent between the spunky dog Sparky and young, socially-awkward Victor Frankenstein, who would rather make super-8 movies starring his pet than play sports - much to the chagrin of his loving-but-concerned parents. The untimely demise of the pointy-nosed canine crushes the boy.
For Burton, 54, the beloved childhood pet was his mongrel Pepe, who came into his suburban Burbank, Calif., home when he was 3 years old.
"The funny thing about dogs is that they are so simple - you leave, come back 10 seconds later and it's like they haven't seen you in a year," Burton says with a laugh. "People don't treat you like that. It's the soulfulness of the dog. There was this strong connection."
Adding to the dog's hold on his young heartstrings, Pepe also suffered from canine distemper for much of his life.
"They said the dog was not going to live very long. He ended up living many years in spite of that," says Burton. "But there was always the specter of that hanging over it."
Sitting amidst the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural splendor of the Casa Del Mar hotel, Burton does not emote animal lover. The Corpse Bride director is a vision of dark from head-to-toe, right down to the black sunglasses he wears indoors, and the black collar of his jacket that points toward his shock of mad-scientist hair. Even the therapeutic band on his right wrist is black ("Don't ask me about that, it's just too embarrassing," he insists).
But Burton says he's a true animal fan ("I love all animals. Hmm, I sound like Miss America''). The loss of Pepe when he was 10 hit him hard.
"It's traumatic because it's this pure little thing," says Burton. "And the emotions are just very simple and present. So much of life is complicated, convoluted. But this was pure and special that way."
Multiple viewings of horror movies helped him through that time, especially ones that featured creatures that were brought back to life - like Frankenstein.
"It wasn't like I really wanted to bring (Pepe) back to life. It was an emotional thing through these movies," says Burton. "That's what those movies did. Dr. Frankenstein getting all crazy. All those feelings I related to. There were easy connections to make in the themes of these films."
As an adult, Burton first tapped into the Frankenweenie concept with a 1984 short film (starring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern), which he says was rejected by Disney as a featurette ("they didn't like it or whatever, it wasn't released").
But as stop-motion animation technology improved, Burton was inspired again to tell the tale in 3-D form. The project, 18 months in the making because of the painstakingly slow animation process, is his most personal screen story to date. The fictional New Holland is an animated stand-in for Burbank (and the nearby Solvang, famous for its windmills).
"This is the first movie where everything is based on a memory," says Burton. "The project opened up things not only about my dog, but the kids at school and how weird they all seemed. The way kids act with each other. The weird teachers. I tried to base it all on the real memories of that place.''
Longtime producing partner Allison Abbate says the filmmaker even had his British crew of animators fly to Burbank and visit Burton's Burbank High School to get a feel for the setting and architecture.
"He was really channeling the kids he met at school,'' says Abbate. "For him, he was tapping into his own personal experience."
Frankenweenie's Victor is especially moved by an eccentric Vincent Price-like science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau). Burton calls the character a composite of many of the teachers who both inspired and scared him. As part of his research, he reconnected with his high school art teacher, 90-year-old Doris Adams, who was Burton's special guest at the Frankenweenie premiere. She was struck by the similarities between the young boy on-screen and the gifted but socially awkward art student who took every one of her classes.
"He was very shy, very introverted, but very creative," says Adams. "And the kids admired his talent. He didn't show it off. He was the most talented student I ever had. He had the most amazing imagination."
Even the part of the film that shows Victor bringing his dog to life with the help of serious jolts of electricity reflected Burton's passion.
"This is Tim Burton all the way through," Adams says, laughing. "If he had the right teacher that could have taught him about electricity, who knows?"
Charlie Tahan, who voices Victor, says it took him one day to become keenly aware of the similarities between his soft-spoken character and the director.
"On the first day I was in the recording booth and (Burton) called me Tim by accident instead of Charlie," says Tahan, "everyone was laughing. And it was explained to me that Frankenweenie is about his childhood."
The dog Sparky looks nothing like Burton's Pepe. But Burton says the "spirit" of the relationship between Victor and Sparky is very much the same as with his own dog - even if he didn't use Pepe in his super-8 creations. ("He didn't do too much. He had injuries. I decided not to torture him by dressing him up," says Burton.)
Other similarities with his past include his parents, who share key characteristics with their counterparts in the movie. While his father, Bill, was a minor-league baseball player, Mr. Frankenstein in Frankenweenie coaxes his son to come out of the attic and play baseball with the other kids.
"That happened," says Burton. "I wasn't the best athlete, I wasn't the worst. My interests were elsewhere. But it was good to be pushed into things you don't want to do. There was that dynamic, but I never considered it to be a negative."
However, Victor's parents' peaceful understanding of their son's quirky behavior "is certainly more of a fantasy version of things."
Martin Short, who voiced the father (along with two other characters), says a clear line was never drawn to real life. "(Burton) never said to me, 'By the way, you're playing my real parents, this is my life.' ".
That said, Burton says he never considered having his longtime partner and frequent film collaborator Helena Bonham Carter play the part of his mother. Too weird. "I didn't want to turn him into Norman Bates from Psycho. It's best to keep things separated," says Burton.
One of his great joys of doing the film, Burton says, was working with his varied professional family, including Landau (who received an Oscar for Burton's 1994 Ed Wood), Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder and Short.
"I feel like a part of this great reunion in his life," says O'Hara, who voices Victor's mother and starred in 1988's Beetlejuice. "It's wonderful."
Ryder voices the part of Victor's young next-door crush, which marked the first time she worked with Burton since 1990's Edward Scissorhands.
"She still sounds like she is 10 years old," says Burton. "She hasn't changed in that way at all."
Burton admits he still thinks about his childhood dog. "It's like any memory of an animal or people you lose. They come into your head at unexpected times," he says. "That's the nature of things in your life that have impact. It comes back."
But the true message that came through the making of the movie was the impact of those who have been part of his life since then.
"This really made me think about the people who have meant something to me," says Burton. "Not just my first dog, but my family and friends. People who are no longer with us. This movie is dedicated to them."