NEW YORK - "Frankenweenie," Tim Burton's new stop-motion animated feature for Walt Disney Pictures which comes out Friday, opens with a young boy, Victor, watching a homemade movie. The star happens to be his dog, Sparky, who rescues miniature townsfolk from a Godzilla-like monster, a foreshadowing of things to come.
Victor, a lonely kid with an attic full of film equipment and a wild imagination, may seem like an obvious stand-in for Burton. That turns out to be only half-right. When it comes to monster movies and horror flicks - the stuff that a young Burton grew up on - the director's strongest empathies actually lie with the monsters.
"The monster for me was the most emotional character. It's that feeling that kids have, that you're different and you're misunderstood and misperceived by society," says Burton, speaking by phone from a Disneyland hotel last weekend. "It puts an image to the feelings that you have. And the movies were the safest way to explore those feelings."
Burton's identification issues may explain why the 54-year-old director has been able to translate his strange visions and grisly sense of humor into unlikely crowd-pleasers and family-friendly blockbusters over a three-decade career.
His early films, like "Beetlejuice," starring a young and moody Winona Ryder, and "Edward Scissorhands," featuring a de-prettified Johnny Depp, helped introduce a Goth-rock aesthetic into mainstream culture and made mopey outsiders seem cooler than the cool kids. Burton was one of the first filmmakers to tap into the dark side of superheroes with 1989's "Batman," and his 1993 stop-motion production, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," remains a gold standard for twisted whimsy.
"Frankenweenie," his 16th film as a director, is a quintessential Burton tale, in which little Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) zaps his dead dog back to life during a furious lightning storm. Despite the stark, black-and-white photography and dramatic camera angles, "Frankenweenie" is also a quintessential Disney film, in which love and kindness win the day and even science has an undercurrent of magic.
There's an irony to all this. As a fledgling animator at Walt Disney Productions in the 1980s, Burton grew bored with bland output like "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) and began working on his own side projects, including a 1984 live-action short called "Frankenweenie." Though little seen, it's now known as the movie that reportedly led to Burton and Disney parting ways.
Burton and Disney would reunite over the years, though sometimes warily. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was initially released under Touchstone, Disney's banner for more mature films. "Alice in Wonderland," Burton's 2010 smash, also was distributed through Disney.
"Frankenweenie" arrives on the heels of several horror-themed movies for children that haven't performed well at the box office, including 2009's "Coraline" and the August release "ParaNorman."
Burton, asked whether the horror-movie conventions of "Frankenweenie" may be too scary for children, sounds more than a little exasperated. "I've done this my whole life," he says. "I remember with the original short, people said, 'Oh, no, my God, this is too weird!' I kept thinking: This company (Disney) was founded on movies that were light and dark, that's why they're powerful. That's why the movies become a part of you."
Original Print Headline: 'Light and dark'
Burton's hits and misses
Since his feature-film directing debut in 1985, Tim Burton has consistently turned his distinctively dark and edgy style into mainstream success - even his disappointments tend to earn respectable numbers. Here's a selective look at the writer-director's career.
"Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985): Burton's first feature was no blockbuster, but it helped Paul Reubens' man-child character get an Emmy-winning television show and remains a cult favorite.
"Beetlejuice" (1988): This comedy about a dead couple (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) seeking help from a devious ghost (Michael Keaton) marks the emergence of Burton's ghoulish but accessible style.
"Batman" (1989): A switch for Burton and Keaton in the title role, but this serious superhero film (Jack Nicholson played The Joker) set the standard for Christopher Nolan's movies 15 years later.
"Edward Scissorhands" (1990): The story of a black-clad, fright-wigged topiary trimmer (Johnny Depp) remains Burton's signature film, an enduring influence on emo kids and Goth rockers.
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993): Written and produced but not directed by Burton, "Nightmare" remains one of his best-loved efforts, a stop-motion mix of Christmas cheer and Halloween horror.
"Alice in Wonderland" (2010): Advance buzz was low on this Burton-Depp collaboration with the usual weird sets and costumes. Surprise - it became the year's second-highest domestic earner, with $334 million.THE MISSES
"Batman Returns" (1992): The sequel to "Batman" earned an impressive $162 million, but the semi-cartoonish performances from Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as The Penguin haven't aged well.
"Ed Wood" (1994): Critics liked Burton's affectionate tribute to real-life crackpot filmmaker Wood (Depp, again), but the public seemed less interested. It earned only $5.8 million.
"Sleepy Hollow" (1999): This period piece starring Depp as Ichabod Crane seemed long on style but short on heart. It made - just barely - more than $100 million.
"Planet of the Apes" (2001): A disappointing reboot of the old sci-fi franchise, starring Mark Wahlberg as the time-traveling human hero. Big-budget effects proved a poor substitute for Burton's personal, quirky style.
"Big Fish" (2003): This fantasy about a son (Billy Crudup) and his story-spinning father (Albert Finney) seemed heartfelt but became a middling performer, earning just less than $67 million.
"Dark Shadows" (2012): Depp and Eva Green crackled as dueling immortals in Burton's latest horror comedy, but vampire fatigue kept it from cracking the $80-million mark.