Welcomed back to the fold with open chequebooks Burton set about laying the foundations to revisit an old friend whose presence is easily found in his filmography and whose story he had told once before.
Frankenweenie is perhaps the culmination of Burton’s work so far, many of the themes which his other films have maypoled around find their roots in this story. Given the chance to make his film of a boy and his dead/undead dog once before Burton’s 2012 stop-motion animation captures everything which made his fans fall for his work; the gloom and the gaudy are present and correct, the triumph of the outsider and, most importantly, there is a heartbeat.
We spoke to Burton, co-director Allison Abbate and Producer Don Hahn in London last year and I was keen to catch up with Don in particular as his experience of the fluidity and changing fortunes of the animation industry would be invaluable in determining what Frankenweenie means for the future of animated movies and if it points to a change in what makes a Disney film.
‘A Disney film is entertaining first and foremost and it has a heart to it. It’s fun, and it’s scary which is a hallmark of every Disney movie. It’s always defined on a film-by-film basis, there are no rules. We all have a gut level feeling of what a Disney film is. It’s about coming away from the film with a sense of what it is to be human. This story is in a large part about dealing with death, and that’s something Disney does often, just go back to Bambi…
Without Tim it wouldn’t have been made. Tim has grown up in the Disney tradition, loves the early Disney film, went to Cal-Arts and grew up here in Burbank. Frankenweenie is something that stretches what we normally see as a family fare from any studio. I love that it pushes the artform, I love that it tries some new things.’
Frankenweenie’s co-director Allison Abbate’s shared enthusiasm was cloaked with a sense of realism in last year’s interview, knowing there ‘will be more movies like this but will we have more money to make them? Probably not’. Hahn agrees,
‘Stop motion is always tough, it has mixed box office but the award nominations realise what we’re doing and they want to celebrate this old artform which goes back to Ray Harryhausen and beyond. It’s a very human story and though it’s told with puppets but there’s something and the fabric and the fingerprints – you can almost feel the hand of the animator. Animation is an artform, it’s a commercial artform and it has to change to stay alive. We’re not running a museum, we’re running a film company at Disney and we are a product of our time. The audiences’ taste will change and I’m not talking about a hunger for explosions but more a hunger for new looks. It’s what drives us, otherwise we get stuck in a horrible rut and we’re repeating ourselves. With this film I think it’s Tim saying what a great artform [this is], and we haven’t scratched the surface in terms of what we can do with this.’
One of Hahn’s forthcoming projects is the latest take on Sleeping Beauty Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning. The recent Snow White films, and their prominent evil Queens, give a good indication of why we are now seeing this story from a different perspective.
‘We all have a notion of the original story of Sleeping Beauty and the truth is these stories were told generationally, they were oral tales and someone in history just wrote them down. Each generation we retell these stories and it’s our job as storytellers to retell the story for our time. We’re sitting here in 2013 and what kind of stories do we tell to ourselves as filmmakers and to an audience? When you have an actress like Angelina Jolie, or Elle Fanning, that in itself redefines what that story is.’
We are at a strange point in the animation industry. That Don Hahn is so enthusiastic about the hunger for new animation artforms while decrying the lack of variety in modern animated films is evidence of its contradictions. I told him of the time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a child, and how it seemed to rejuvenate the public’s affection for animated films, he suggested that feeling may be here again.
‘When I was starting out I worked with people who had worked with Walt Disney, the Nine Old Men, and on Roger Rabbit it was as if the audience had forgotten how much they loved animation. Not just Disney, but Warner Bros and all the great characters of the past. To have that reaction to Roger Rabbit turn into The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King and then watch now all these amazing kids working in animation come up with Wreck-it Ralph or Brave. When I started at Disney it was the same time as John Lasseter, Tim Burton and Brad Bird and animation was a backwater, it was a place where no-one particularly wanted to spend their career. So it’s so gratifying to see what’s happening in animation now, and we have only just scratched the surface. To see the films coming out of Disney, Pixar and other studios like Aardman it’s a great time right now.