Essay: Tim Burton - An Appraisal and an Appeal

The hero of imaginative, marginalized teens everywhere, as well as anyone interested in film as a visual art, Tim Burton remains one of the most inventive, recognizable, and influential living filmmakers.  I stand by this claim despite the fact that the last decade of Burton’s work has been wildly uneven, with some films that can only be called mediocre in a spirit of great generosity.  After roaring out of the gate with two dazzlingly creative and very funny films – Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) – Burton was well on his way to a major career when he was hired to direct Warner Brothers’ big budget re-imagining of the Batman franchise in 1989.  The enormous success of Batman and its sequel paved the way for Burton’s more personal projects, including Edward Scissorhands (1990), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Ed Wood (1994).  

Through the late 1990s, Burton maintained a steady – if not always critically lauded – flow of releases that married his unique perspective and flair for design to stories that looked askance at mainstream American society.  Almost every original screenplay Burton has directed – Pee Wee, Scissorhands, Nightmare, Ed Wood – tell stories of lovable outsiders who insist on living life according to their own individual codes, at the risk of being marginalized or even ostracized.  Some of Burton’s “franchise” work touches upon similar themes – including Batman Returns (1992), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – and sometimes with great success.

Things have changed, however, as Burton has recently become more of a director-for-hire than an artist tirelessly shaping stories rooted in his own personal vision.  Since the end of the 1990s, Burton has made six films:  Planet of the Apes (2001) was a remake; Big Fish (2003) was based on a best-selling novel; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) was based on the classic book by Roald Dahl (already adapted into a beloved film); Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) is an adaptation of a Tony-winning Broadway musical; and Alice in Wonderland (2010) is a new treatment of the Carroll classic that has already seen countless interpretations.  Only The Corpse Bride (2005), the stop-motion musical comedy, was based on an original screenplay without a specific previously published referent (the story is inspired by a folk tale of indeterminate origin).

Although most of these films made a decent amount of money – and Burton certainly remains a filmmaker who is free to choose his projects as he sees fit – none are as memorable as anything he directed prior to the year 2000.  Planet of the Apes was a visually bold but unnecessary remake hampered by an overworked plot and an undercooked script.  Big Fish was Burton-lite, missing his visual signature while courting an out-of-place whimsy that felt like it was imported from overseas and spoiled on the journey.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marked a return to grand visual concepts and starred Johnny Depp in a bizarre but memorable interpretation of the title character, but the whole thing seems a bit too tailored for the under-12s.  Sweeney Todd is both the most-lauded of this group of films – garnering Oscar and Golden Globe nominations galore – and, in my view, the worst.  Never has such a gory film been so bloodless.  Depp is out of his depth in the musical lead – not because he can’t sing, but because he can’t act while singing; besides which, it’s a poorly developed one-note role.  The entire film feels like a scene from Madame Tussaud’s: visually lavish, but immobile.  (I have yet to see Alice in Wonderland.) 

The Corpse Bride, while not as singular as Burton’s first stop-motion feature (perennial favorite The Nightmare Before Christmas), is an enjoyable, painstakingly crafted feature filled with Burton’s trademark imaginative design and gallows humor.  It is missing the satisfying character arcs of his best films, but remains worthy of repeat viewings.

Burton’s great films – and there are several of them – all date from the 1980s and 1990s.  I’m not suggesting the man’s best work is behind him.  What I am saying is that his best films come from either his own ideas, or screenplays that are otherwise original.  Burton’s dependence upon studio-owned properties is depressing – both from the standpoint of those films’ overall quality, and from the perspective of the filmmakers he has influenced, who struggle to make careers against enormous odds.  To turn around and watch a hero abandon his own genius in favor of pre-packaged characters – some of whose histories go back many generations – is like having a piece of your own imagination put into a blender and served to The Man with a lemon twist. 

In his first fifteen years as a filmmaker, Burton specialized in movies that were both escapist and rooted in identifiable human experience.  Beyond that, Burton’s visuals marked him as a director unusually attuned to design – from the low-budget whimsy of Pee Wee and the megabudget steampunk of Gotham City, to the pared-back cheap vintage black-and-white of Ed Wood and the incomparably imagined holiday worlds of The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Too often, however, Burton has been criticized for his rich, detailed visuals – as if his talent were a filmmaking handicap.  While Burton is not known for exploring interior psychoscapes in any great detail, his characters have tended to balance a darker inner world with a more appealing or “innocent” exterior.  They are the doorway to his cinematic point of view, reflecting the consciousness of a child or childlike person, who is either gifted in peculiar ways or otherwise bound to an against-the-grain personality requiring a fight to be recognized or valued by the rest of the world.  Despite a fair amount of criticism to the contrary, most of Burton’s films are rooted in believable, sympathetic characters whose own personalities form the basis of their conflicts and struggles.  We care about them for a reason – and a large part of that reason lies in the familiar sensitivity with which Burton handles them.

(I should point out parenthetically, and somewhat paradoxically, that I hold Batman Returns as the most emotionally satisfying of all Burton’s films; something rare, unusual, and touching passes between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman – a strange, ethereal sense of doom.  For all the impressive visual pyrotechnics of Burton’s second Batman feature, this strained, tentative relationship is what holds it together and makes it last.  Compared to its predecessor, Burton had both a larger budget on Batman Returns, and increased creative freedom.)

The “appeal” part of this article is not a criticism or a complaint.  Burton is a genius who has already accomplished more than most filmmakers could have ever dreamed.  He’s only 51 years old, and presumably has many more productive years ahead of him.  So, the appeal comes from the knowledge that Burton is much better than his recent work, and the fact that we’ve seen him stretch his comfort zone and try new and interesting things in the past.  A great director need not be consistent.  But he must trust his instincts and believe in his ability to tell original stories in unusual ways.  Burton’s recent reliance upon studio-owned mega-properties as his primary storytelling material flirts with the danger of audiences forgetting who he really is and why he is unique.  I don’t think Sweeney Todd or Big Fish carry anything like Burton’s spirit with them, and I can’t imagine them lasting inter-generationally in the collective memory; these are bland, dry films with blunt edges.  But I trust that a return to original material would sharpen Burton’s wits, and unburden his imagination from the weight of previous versions of the same story and pre-existing design schemes already ingrained in the public consciousness.

It is with admiration and humility that I exhort the man.  Tim Burton – get back to nature.

Edit: Here is a short follow-up piece I wrote after watching Alice in Wonderland.

No comments:

Post a Comment