Tim Burton: Devotion and Disappointment
Tim Burton is a genius. Apologies if you disagree, but it’s true. Sadly, he’s a genius who seems to have realised that he is a genius, and the second any genius does this, he ceases to be a genius. I have now forgotten what ‘genius’ actually means. I digress. Over the past twenty-five years Timothy Walter Burton has been very busy. Everything started out so well, so wonderfully wonky, so delightfully devilish and demonic. The man took the cookie-cutter, sun ‘n shades style Hollywood of the 1980s and smeared it in black eyeliner. Unlike what came before, Burton didn’t work in straight lines, and the audiences loved him for it.
If you ask me, simply for that early whirl of ghoulish genius which bore such Hollywood bastard-child fruit as Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands, he deserves his place amongst the talismanic greybeards of modern cinema: the Spielbergs, Camerons, Lucases – maybe Ridley Scott could even scowl his way onto the list too, despite Prometheus. It’s a big regret of mine that I missed out on what I consider the golden age of Burtonmania, his late eighties and mid nineties period of stuff like the aforementioned films, along with the two Batman films, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow, because I was far too busy with such menial diversions as being born, discovering the joys of sucking my thumb and starting school.
Burton’s long career can be sliced rather cleanly in half. The first half, his breakthrough and establishment, from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 to Sleepy Hollow in 1999, is by far the superior one; the second half begins with 2001’s much maligned Planet of the Apes, and continues up until the present day and Burton’s most recent feature Frankenweenie (which I have yet to see but which I have heard good things about – perhaps it’s more than coincidence that it is based off of material that Burton devised when he was a young upstart?). Looking at the development of Burton’s films, it makes me a little sad to say that the great man looks to have joined the long list of film-makers, such as the aforementioned Sir Ridley, whose best work looks to be behind them.
It pains me to say this, not least because Burton’s work in the last decade was blessed with great potential. Putting Roald Dahl and Tim Burton together for an on-screen adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seemed, on paper, like a match made in cinematic heaven, but Burton’s film was less the delicious classic we were expecting and more like a beautifully packaged bar of chocolate that you guzzle down joyfully but which leaves you feeling bloated, sick, and a bit regretful. The film was too long, and too predictable, but I can’t help thinking that if the Burton of the early nineties, the man who gave John Christopher Depp II scissors for hands and made it a box-office smash, had gotten his hands on Dahl’s book, he would have crafted something truly extraordinary which would have rivalled the Gene Wilder version for cult idolatry. It’s a signature of the cosiness and familiarity that Burton’s career has become so suffocated by that the film he eventually made felt like such a sickly disappointment (conversely, I’ve always felt Burton’s Charlie should have been made in the stop-motion medium, Burton’s cinematic lovechild, with Stephen Fry as the silky-smooth voice of Wonka, but what do I know?).
Alice in Wonderland was another disappointment. With an artist as distinctive as Burton, I truly believe that familiarity most definitely breeds contempt; the film was just the one the audience expected, but I don’t think it is the one it wanted. Again, the cinematic marriage of Lewis Carroll and Burton, with Wonderland peopled by a leading cast of crusty British thesps and American stars, sounded like gold, more wonderfully warped that the Mad Hatter on prozac, but the final product, like Charlie, struggled to be heard over the sound of a large bag of potential being wastefully tossed into the rubbish bin. It played more like a checklist of Burton’s greatest hits, rather than an exciting new step for Burton’s career in its own right: Johnny Depp doing Jack Sparrow on an off-day, Helena Bonham Carter’s presence (who is a fantastic actress but becoming repetitive in Burton’s films), and Danny Elfman cranking out a fairly by-the-numbers score. Plus the story was all over the place, and played more like The Lord of the Rings with some garish shrubbery in the background than the twisted coming-of-age tale that it should have been.
I think if films like Charlie and Alice prove anything about Burton’s career, it’s that, like a certain Mr. Beetlejuice, he does not work well with others; mixing his style with another artist as unique as himself may seem like genius, but I think Burton and people like Dahl and Carroll share the explosive properties of unpredictable chemical elements that work fine separately but cause a mess when thrown together, and as such are best kept apart. I think if Burton wants to rediscover that golden age creativity he showed so wonderfully in the first stage of his career, he should leave the adaptations of existing material to others and put more original work up on the screen, like he did with Ed Wood, Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He could also vary his casting, because, as talented as Johnny Depp is, he is becoming a little…whisper it…boring in Burton’s films (excluding Frankenweenie, he’s starred in the last five). Burton needs to regain the power of cinematic surprise, which still stands as the trump card in filmmaking. Who, after the stratospheric success of Batman, thought Burton’s next project would centre on a soulful teen-idol wandering around a pastel-coloured suburbia with garden shears strapped to his hands? But it worked, and Burton’s uniqueness was cemented (or perhaps demented).
In fact, Scissorhands, and its place in Burton’s career, reminds me a lot of Christopher Nolan and Inception; both men, having emerged from tremendous box-office success (with the same point-eared character, no less), went on to make original but loved works that seemed to define the raison d’etre of their careers: Nolan with Inception’s playfulness of reality, memory, and paranoia, and Burton’s Scissorhands distilling perhaps his purest vision of the outsider’s role in society and the conflict between surface and reality. Burton then, like Nolan’s name does now, excited people, and kept them guessing – Burton needs to regain that.
This is not an article attacking Tim Burton. I love Tim Burton. I genuinely think the man is one of the finest hollywood film-makers of the last fifty years; certainly one of the most distinctive, and as well as that, he wears really cool blue glasses, when I am pretty sure he has no problem with his eyesight – this man is an icon! So it pains me to see him release subpar work like Charlie, Alice, and Planet of the Apes, when he is clearly capable of so much more. On the other hand, the future looks promising; Burton’s next film Big Eyes is an original feature written by the scribes of Ed Wood (and Christoph Waltz is in it, so it will rock). It is often said that artists only truly come to fruition in the autumn of their careers, so perhaps we are due a Burton renaissance. I certainly hope so, because films such as Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and his Batman double have permeated our cultural consciousness, and their creator truly deserves to retain his seat at the top table of Hollywood talent. I still get nightmares about the Penguin biting that guy’s nose in Batman Returns, but moments like that remind me why I fell in love with Burton in the first place. His classic work is for the ages, and cinema needs more of it.
So come on, Tim, give us all a few more nightmares. I believe in you.
What do you think? Leave a comment.