It’s hard to believe, but Tim Burton, the director whose movies have earned close to $1 billion worldwide in theaters and on video, was deemed uncommercial at Walt Disney Pictures back in the early ’80s. ”They didn’t know what to do with me,” says Burton, who’s now busy editing Batman Returns. ”They’d look at my drawings, say, ‘Oh, great great great,’ and close the door.” There’s genuine amazement in Burton’s voice as he recalls all the ”distinctly un-Disney” character designs he was encouraged to do for The Black Cauldron, a 1985 animated dud, only to find ”they didn’t use one damn thing.”
This, of course, was Disney just before the Eisner-Katzenberg era, a time, Burton says, when the company was run by ”second-and third-stringers who never retired. They would spout these hand-me-down Waltisms. They’d ask, ‘What would Walt have done?’ He probably would have said, ‘You’re all fired.”’
Still, Burton gratefully acknowledges that the company’s awareness of its own choking conservatism did spur a few adventurous executives to fund a breakthrough project for him. Vincent, a seven-minute puppet-animation piece about a boy who imagines his dog is a zombie, won film-festival awards in 1982 yet got no commercial release. Following it up with Frankenweenie, which was also shelved, Burton left the mouse factory in 1985.
Now the featurette Disney once consigned to scrap is being marketed on the strength of Burton’s name. It’s sweet vindication for the director, though he wonders why Vincent wasn’t included on the Frankenweenie tape. ”They’ll never put out a separate seven-minute title,” he says. But have hope, Burton fans: Maybe Vincent will be tagged onto Nightmare Before Christmas, the Disney cartoon feature Burton is slated to direct about a skeleton in love with the wrong holiday.