THERE’S A recurring debate among longtime Tim Burton fans: when exactly did their hero become a mainstream wow? Some point to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the 12th biggest grossing movie of all time. Others note that Burton’s Batman films ignited the current vogue for superheroes as long ago as 1989.
In truth, Burton’s brand of cartoon gothic and cutesy outsider angst has always pleased crowds. A girl who turns into a bed? We’re there. Johnny Depp with shears for mitts? What’s not to love?
Hollywood, however, hasn’t always been quick to recognise the value of this shadowy oeuvre. Between the hits – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the 54-year-old film-maker’s back catalogue is peppered with missed commercial opportunities. Edward Scissorhands, arguably the director’s finest film, received only a limited theatrical release in 1990 and was unavailable in the US for many years. Ed Wood was kicked around between all five major studios before it went into production in 1994. The director’s anime-inspired Hansel and Gretel was broadcast once, late at night, on the Disney Channel in 1983 and did not surface again until the 2009 Burton retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“The studios are always more comfortable if you are making a big Marvel comic-book movie,” says Burton, as he fumbles with a handkerchief. “But that never changes. Maybe it’s getting more that way. But it has always been that way.”
Today, in the run up to the London premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the director has the sniffles but is in high spirits. He ought to be. Frankenweenie, even on a CV defined by personal projects, is a sort of homecoming. Back in 1984, Disney bosses famously didn’t know what to do with his original 30-minute version. The House of Mouse, then at its lowest historical ebb, fired the young animator for “wasting company resources” on a short film about a boy who tries to reanimate his late, beloved dog.
“Well, it got me hired somewhere else,” smiles Burton. “It was a whole different time and place. Being at Disney at that time was fun. Even though it was frustrating, there was no other studio that was letting somebody do that sort of short film. It was a difficult industry back then. It was probably the low point for animation. You look at what’s going on now and it’s flourishing. But at that time they were having growing pains in terms of what direction they were going.”
He’s genuinely not bitter. Frankenweenie redux arrives feature length and in splendid retro 3D monochrome courtesy of Disney, the studio where Burton once laboured thanklessly on The Fox and the Hound and Tron. In 1985, they canned him for making something “too dark and scary for kids”. In 2012, they’re happy to do the same project in stop-motion and (brave this) black and white.
“I don’t think I could make a really scary film if I tried,” says Burton. “There’s this footage on YouTube from the 1960s where they kept this dog’s head alive. I am not at home watching it.
Bringing things back to life is fine in a fantasy movie. But we don’t want that in real life maybe.
Nowadays, should he ever need to check the fear factor, Burton has a ready-made Frankenweenie test audience at home. He and Helena Bonham Carter, his partner of 11 years, live just down the road in Hampstead with their two children: nine-year-old Billy and five-year-old Nell. The youngsters have, he says, left their mark on his latest film.