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From Tim Burton, Another Signature Lovable Loner

Tim Burton, seen here with a stop-motion puppet, has made several films using the time-intensive style, including <em>The Nightmare Before Christmas</em>, <em>Corpse Bride</em> and his latest film, <em>Frankenweenie</em>.
Walt Disney Pictures
Tim Burton, seen here with a stop-motion puppet, has made several films using the time-intensive style, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride and his latest film, Frankenweenie.

Tim Burton is known for making quirky films, including Batman, Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, Mars Attacks, and the blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. His latest movie is an animated adaptation of the classic Frankenstein story — only this time, it's a little boy who brings his dog, Sparky, back to life.

Burton says Frankenweenie is his most personal film, based on his memories of growing up in Burbank in the 1950s. Like his main character, Victor, Burton had a beloved dog who died.

"Pepe was a mutt," Burton says, during a visit to Los Angeles to promote his movie.

Like Victor, Burton grew up in the suburbs. He made Super 8 films, watched horror movies and played in the nearby cemetery.

"Being there felt very sort of somber and humble and quite thoughtful," Burton recalls. "It was a place I found romantic and dramatic."

Disney's animation studios, Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures were all just a few avenues away. But for Burton, a recluse, they seemed out of reach.

"You kind of feel like you're alone and nobody understands you, and you think you're the only person who feels that way," he says. "But probably if you asked any kid, they probably felt exactly the same way. Most of them also felt like, sort of strange, because they felt quite normal at the same time, and other people felt weird."

Burton has used this archetype — the seemingly odd, misunderstood loner who triumphs with his imagination and creativity and heart — in most of his films.

Take Edward Scissorhands, about a soulful young man whose hands are literally made of scissors He's feared by his suburban neighbors, but ultimately wins them over by creating elaborate topiaries and ice sculptures.

Then there's Burton's homage to cult filmmaker Ed Wood, a cross-dresser who befriends aging horror actor Bela Lugosi and earnestly produces B-movie masterpieces.

You can see the quirky-outsider motif in Beetlejuice, in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, in his version of Batman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sweeney Todd, even his Alice In Wonderland remake.

Burton says he continues to identify with the peculiar-nonconformist motif, despite the fact that he happily lives far from Hollywood with actress Helena Bonham Carter and their children in London — despite working with friends Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman, and despite his many successes.

"Even if you change as a person, you can have a big family and friends, but you can still have those feelings," Burton said. "They never leave you. You still can go right back to that place so quickly. It's scary."

'Permission To Be Weird'

Burton studied animation at the California Institute of the Arts, which was founded by Walt Disney. He's still a legend among Cal Arts students, who talk about the door to his dorm room, which he altered to be crooked.

In the animation department, students describe Burton's visual style — spirals, stripes — and his storytelling — whimsical, dark, funny. Like her classmates, Rose Browner grew up watching Burton's films.

"The monotony of suburbia, introducing a dark, twisted element," she said. "I can completely relate to that." Browner says she was the only goth kid in her high school, in a suburb of Milwaukee.

"My nickname through school was Satan," she recalled. "And Tim Burton's work gives people like me permission to be weird. Sometimes I go home from school and think it doesn't pay to be weird. And then you see Tim Burton, and you say, 'Oh, but it does.' "

Student Vitaliy Strokous credits Burton with helping to revolutionize modern animation with his pop-surrealist sensibility. While Disney cartoons were known for being cute and cuddly, Strokous says Burton "made the grotesque really accessible and really appealing."

It's somewhat ironic, then, that Burton got his start after college, as an animator at Disney Studios. He admits he was miserable there. 

"I realize I was not good at their style. It was quite depressing," says Burton. "Being a bad animator saved me. I'd be some alcoholic in the gutter somewhere drawing cute foxes."

Still, Burton's Frankenweenie, and other films, were made for Disney. "They have a revolving-door policy," he joked.

It was during his time at Disney, in 1984, that he first shot Frankenweenie as a live-action short. The studio that once thought it was too strange is now releasing his new stop-motion animation version.

Disney's California Adventure theme park has on display some of the puppets and drawings Burton used in the movie, and Disneyland features his Nightmare Before Christmas characters.

"He appeals to a cult audience," says Museum of Modern Art curator Ron Magliozzi. "An audience that feels a deep connection to Tim and his work. Also a family audience, who see it as edgy but not too edgy."

Magliozzi is responsible for a wildly popular exhibition of Burton's artwork at MOMA. The filmmaker's sketches, props and installations have also been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, and at museums in Toronto, Melbourne and, now, in Seoul.

Magliozzi says Burton's appeal has to do with the notion of preserving childhood instincts as an artist.

"It's his sense of fun, and that notion that nothing a child has done is bad, it should be encouraged. Tim absorbed all of that pop culture people said was not worthy, like sketching monsters. He never lost faith in that, and the results have been a phenomenon."

Burton still takes time for his fans, like 7-year-old Dashiell del Barco, my nephew. (I couldn't resist showing off Dash's Burtonesque sketches.)

"Wow," the filmmaker exclaimed. "I wish I could draw like that!"

He said there's something pure about kids' art, something he says older artists spend their lives trying to regain. Then he signed a copy of his art book.

"To Dashiell," he wrote: "Keep on drawing."

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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and
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