ANAHEIM -- In the picket-fenced suburbia that was '60s Burbank, a child named Tim Burton had a dog named Pepe, whose life was shortened by distemper.
"It was like my first pure relationship," Burton recalls. "But there was always a bit of a specter of death hanging over the relationship - which when you're young you don't really understand and you don't know how to deal with it."
Burton is not one to engage in amateur psychiatry in interviews. So he's loath to connect the dots between this childhood memory and his mostly mordant film library -- Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, etc. -- or his personal style. (He's dressed in his trademark black on a bright September day, nearly 100 degrees in Disneyland, where the movie is being launched.)
But he happily points to Pepe as a starting point for the full-circle that is Frankenweenie, his gleefully dark stop-motion film about a boy and the dog he brings back to life. It's an animated version of a live-action short he made during his '80s stint as a young Disney artist, a film that went unreleased and led to his departure from the studio.
On multiple levels, the horror-comedy appears to be Burton's attempt to prove wrong the old Thomas Wolfe saying "you can't go home again." In 3D black-and-white, it evokes a pre-digital town called New Holland, where homemaker mom feeds the family fondue dinners, and young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) eschews friends for the familiarity of his attic where he makes homemade 8mm monster films, just as young Burton did.
It is a reboot from the start of his career, based on the original drawings. It is loaded with wry nods to the monster movies that informed his childhood, from the Universal horror films and character actors like Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, to Godzilla and the works of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen.
And, in another retro touch, it is voiced by actors from Burton's earlier films. No Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter here. Instead, we have Winona Ryder and Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice), Martin Landau (Ed Wood) playing a teacher character drawn to look like Vincent Price (Beetlejuice again) and Martin Short (Mars Attacks!).
The idea of re-imagining Frankenweenie came about a few years ago, when "I when I was looking at the (original) drawings and I just started thinking about other things, like kids I remember at school and teachers and things. It just sort of felt natural to go back to the drawings and turn them into stop-motion black-and-white."
He admits a certain longing played a part in the casting too. "They're all people I love, and because the project meant so much, it was nice to work with them again. But they also brought a lot of talent. Catherine and Martin had to do three voices each -- and they could do 10 if they wanted. Winona I love, and I haven't worked with her in a while, and Martin Landau too."
And then there's the reunion with Disney. Like star-crossed lovers, Burton just can't seem to quit that studio -- for good at least. When Burton made The Nightmare Before Christmas with director Henry Selick, Disney was aghast and refused to put its name on the project, releasing it through its Touchstone film division.
"I remember getting a lot of rejection slips from Disney early on," Burton says. "for children's books, books of art." A 2009 exhibit of Burton's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art even had framed rejection slips from Disney on the wall as part of the installation.
However, he says he doesn't feel victimized. "That (the '80s) was a period when a lot of talented artists left Disney. Henry Selick, John Lasseter (who would go on to co-found Pixar and ironically become president of Disney Animation when the companies merged), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles). All those people left because no one really got it, you know."
These days, perhaps because so little money is at stake, (Frankenweenie's budget is a paltry $30 mil) Disney didn't even raise a fuss over black-and-white filming, which was a good thing. "If the studio said it had to be in colour, I would not have done it," Burton says.
Burton, who's nurtured his inner child onscreen, has kids of his own with longtime partner Bonham Carter. His son, who turns 9 this week, "likes old Ray Harryhausen movies, which is interesting, because you're never sure with kids. The movies are so quick now. So you wonder, do they understand the kind of crudity and slower-paced stuff? But he got right into Harryhausen, which is good
"And my daughter was three years old on Easter Sunday, and we watched her favourite movie, (the 1968 Japanese) War of the Gargantuas. So that's a good sign too."