Tim Burton: Devotion and Disappointment

Tim Burton

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.

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  1. I don’t think he’s lost his creativity as bad as George Lucas or M. Night Shyamalan have but his movies now just feel like products. The formula seems to be here’s Johnny Depp playing some wacky character, here’s Helena Bonham Carter in cleavage (I don’t mind), here’s the black humor, here’s the gothic visuals etc etc etc. His movies just don’t feel genuine anymore, they feel like carefully crafted products made to make a shitload of money. But I liked Sweeney Todd and Frankenweenie.

    • Hild Sandavol

      Great article, I agree with everything and with this comment above. When I saw Alice in Wonderland, I felt like I was watching a really expensive commercial. Yes, the production values are top-notch but the heart is missing. I loved Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, I know Burton didn’t direct it but come on, it spells Burton) because those movies felt really personal to him and because of how much passion Burton had in those films, it makes the audience feel just as passionate about them.

      I don’t get the same feeling watching Alice in Wonderland, I felt that he was just making a movie hoping to please the studio but he himself wasn’t interested. But still, I haven’t lost all hope in him because occasionally he does make a movie that feels as passionate and personal as Edward Scissorhands.

      I just hope that he makes more films like that rather than films like Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

  2. winburn

    I can’t help but feel that Burton has a kind of Spielberg way of directing. By this I mean the way that Spielberg will make his money maker film, like Jurassic Park, to make his personal film, such as Schindler’s List. Burton has a similar approach. He made his biggest box office hit to date with Alice in Wonderland, and now he can focus his real attention to his pet project, Big Eyes.

  3. Besides Alice in Wonderland and maybe a few of his recent movies, Tim Burton is a genius. I understand that there are a lot of Burton fans that may like him, because they consider him as the “gothic” director, but he isn’t a gothic director. He is just dark. What Tim Burton does with the camera is amazing.

    I am writing my research paper for cinema appreciation on Tim Burton, and my teacher is very excited about it. The way he utilizes satire on modern society through his films are amazing.

  4. Kelsey Clark

    I hope that he starts to focus on important projects and avoids blockbusters. Much like Joss Whedon, I don’t want to see him stray to pointless plots just for the big bucks.

  5. Taylor Ramsey

    Nice one! I agree that Burton has to at least some extent, ‘jumped the shark’.
    His newer work displays a commecial veneer that covers up his own sensibilities to the point anyone could have made these films.

  6. Big Fish was amazing. I love that film. Everything else of recent years…meh.

  7. Jessica Koroll

    I have to agree. I think in a lot of his recent films, you can still see some of his old genius mucking around under the surface but it becomes hard to decipher through the formulaic production choices that he now seems to fond of. I would love for him to make a comeback and create something on level with Beetleguise and Edward Scissorhands again. He’s probably one of the few directors today who could go to a studio, pitch an original story, and have few problems getting it done.

  8. Brett Siegel

    Thanks for such a lively and involving piece! As strange as it sounds, I think that Burton’s creativity decreases as his budget increases. When he’s working with big ideas and practical effects, the results are extraordinary, but once he gets bogged down in studio expectations and fancy technologies, his unique voice as an artist starts to fade away. It’s intriguing how Burton and Depp have followed similar career trajectories–as you say, ceasing to become geniuses upon realizing that they are geniuses. Here’s hoping they still have a classic or two left in them!

  9. Right there with you. Ever since Big Fish, I have been turned off from everything Burton has done. However, it seems he’s learning from his mistakes and turning a new corner. Frankenweenie was very sweet and unique, reminding me quite a bit of both Edward S and Beetle J. I love his sense of humor, and it was back in full swing. If he can revive his creativity, it would be a great gain for us all. Thanks for reminding us!

  10. Giovana Picone

    I love this article, I think it is refreshing for someone to have such a strong opinion that goes against what most people think. I agree with everything you said and your argument was strong and it reminds us, that just because someone is a genius doesn’t mean they should be praised for past creations.

  11. Karinsky

    No issues with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory here, far more faithful to the book and highly enjoyable family movie. Only been disappointed in Planet of the apes and Alice in wonderland.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read. I don’t think just because something is more faithful to its source material it is automatically a better adaptation. I think the art of a great adaptation is junking things that don’t work and building on things that do, but also establishing something new and fresh from the existing material. otherwise, if it’s just a carbon copy of its source, why adapt it at all?
      Glad you agree about Alice haha – that film is rubbish.

      • Karinsky

        Well I certainly prefer the original, but I also enjoy the “remake” After the other film it was nice to have something that followed the book as close as they possibly could. Plus both films are completely different to each other. Lets not forget inn 1971 people hated the Wonka movie.

        Alice was again a good kids film I guess, most people under 10 seem to enjoy it, but it was a film any director could have made and it wouldn’t have been much different.

        But Tim Burton’s early work isn’t much different to his later work, both periods have high class movies, and some low points, and after following his work for over 20 years i’ll continue to just see where he takes us next.

  12. Andy Cashmore

    This article has given me something to think about. I’m guilty of thinking of Burton fondly because of his past creations like Edward Scissorhands and his involvement in projects such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, but never taking the time to watch his latest films. Maybe I just don’t want the magic to be spoiled for me, which I’m very afraid will happen now because of this article haha!

  13. Vic Millar

    Dark Shadows was a mess, but I thought Frankenweenie was fun and am a huge fan of Sweeney Todd. I’d rank Todd up there with Scissorhands and Big Fish as his best.

  14. A. Gregori

    J. Shiel, I know you’re a novice, but one day you might become a good critic. For now, and as far as this article is concerned, you lose much credibility by calling Burton a “genius” right at the beginning. He is not. And he’s not up there with Spielberg as you suggest.
    Be a Burton fan by all means, but don’t be a fanboy who uses the term “genius” throughout the article, please.

    • I believe I only called him a genius in the opening two paragraphs…
      Thanks for taking the time to read anyway!

    • Michael

      Don’t be a hater, A. Gregori. Clearly you just don’t get Tim Burton (who IS a genius, by the way.)

      You don’t like him? Fine. But must you really go out of your way to belittle someone who does? Can’t you see how petty that is? If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Just read click away from the article and go about your day. Geez.

      • A. Gregori

        Michael, neither am I a “hater” or a “belittler” of others. I believe my comment doesn’t call for such accusations, not even from hardcore Tim fans.

        “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
        This is a very unhelpful principle by and large, I’m afraid.

  15. Fantastic article – I love your writing style, and I agree. It’s sad to see his films losing heart.

  16. Sadly, I have to agree with you – you’re absolutely right, and as a Burton fan, it breaks my heart. Alice in Wonderland 2 doesn’t sound very promising – hope he will soon create something as brilliant as Edward Scissorhands. I love his art work, it is so inspiring. So many ideas left for him to develop!

  17. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    A very mature look at the aging auteur. Nice read.

    I think that Pee-Wee and Ed Wood are the director’s best work at movie-making. And then you look at Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas and realize the guy’s pretty great – better than all the Hot Topic merchandise would lead you to believe haha

  18. Tim Burton does have an innovative quality to himself, at least in his original films.

  19. frenchdreamer.

    Til Burton is no doubt, an unique character in the history of cinema,
    and even though some people suggest he has kind of lost the path to the his original self,
    still, do you know someone who is doing it better?
    The stories he pick, are still unique and not for everyone.
    At last, if nothing else, that shows courage.

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