Beetlejuice represents Tim Burton’s big break in the film business. He had already served his apprenticeship directing PeeWee’s Big Adventure, Frankenweenie and a number of TV shows. This is also Winona Ryder’s big film debut at the tender age of 16. She had made a couple of movies before this, but this turned out to be her most significant step towards the A list. The film was decently budgeted and as I recall, heavily promoted so it was a big deal at the time. Interestingly the film was originally pitched as a much darker piece of melodrama, but Keaton and Burton’s influence twisted this into the black comedy we know today.
The plot is pure Burton fantasy stuff. The Maitlands are a happily married, childless couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin). They have a beautiful home and an idyllic life. Sadly, they die in unfortunate circumstances (to say the least). This is where their troubles start rather than end. They are to exist as ghosts within their dream home. The home that is subsequently sold to the Deitz’s who have very different ideas about home improvements. The Maitlands must try and scare the mortal interlopers away. They call on Beetlejuice (Keaton) to help them haunt the Deitz’s. Unlike the Maitlands, Beetlejuice is a nasty piece of work and causes no end of trouble. Throughout all of this, only one depressed little girl, Lydia (Ryder), can see what is happening. Add to this an afterlife social worker, sand worms, a small ghost priest, a full size model of the town, unusual banisters and works of “art” with a life of their own, and you have what sounds like complete chaos.
In a sense you’d be absolutely right…after a slowish start the film never really lets up, and becomes something of a visual roller coaster. Unkind observers of Burton’s work have said that he should be a director of photography, as he is all style and no substance. This is unfair, his ideas are a breath of fresh air and so off the wall you can’t help but smile at them. The set pieces are executed with a flourish and always hit the spot. The effects are inventive and suitably wacky. Ryder and Keaton are the standouts performance-wise. Ryder is effective as the depressed funereal teenager. And Keaton is almost unrecognisable as the irrepressible Beetlejuice. As with most other films by Burton it is not perfect. The start is very slow and this is mainly due to the biggest flaw in the film, the Maitland’s themselves. Baldwin and Davis acquit themselves admirably, but when it comes down to it they haven’t got a lot to work with here. They are particularly weak characters, and most of the time you will be wishing Beetlejuice and Lydia would turn up more often. As a result you are left with a film that suffers from weak protagonists, and seems to depend too much on its set pieces. This causes the first third of the film to drag slightly but after this it really takes off. As a great fan of Burton’s work, and of Ryder as an actress, I’m willing to overlook most of its faults. Some of you may not be as lenient. I hadn’t seen the film for many years but it was a joy to watch it again.
This disc is part of Warner’s £12.99 range of titles; a great value range, but the discs are usually bare bones. Opening the case reveals a double-sided disc. No, it’s not a flipper and it’s not a double-sided special edition extravaganza. It is simply 4:3 on one side and widescreen on the other.
The menus on this title look amateurish, with awful grey buttons that look even worse when highlighted with purple text. I am no great fan of fancy menus but a line has to be drawn somewhere. There are 28 chapter stops, which is generous given the 92-minute running time.
As indicated above we have two prints of this film here. On one side we have the 1.85:1 anamorphic print, and on the other a 4:3 print. For you 4:3 TV owners (who don’t like black bars) you will be happy to hear that it seems to be a full frame print and not pan-and-scan. The picture is adequate. Pleasingly there were no compression artefacts that I could see. Colour, probably one of the most important elements in a Burton film, is very good. Blacks are black, primary colours are vibrant and contrast is good. There was a fair amount of dirt and print damage, not quite enough to be distracting but still there nonetheless. At times the image did seem a bit soft to me, I don’t remember the original print being soft so I have to lay the blame with the encoding. Most new Warner discs have very good transfers, so I can only assume that their standards in 1999 (the year this was released) were lower.
I was pleasantly surprised that we have a DD 5.1 mix here. It’s a vibrant mix that suits Danny Elfman’s sweeping score. Channel separation is for the most part very good. Rears are used sparingly but effectively. The dialogue seemed a little thin in places, but I think I may be splitting hairs here. There are also French and Italian dubs, although only in Dolby Surround.
Extras-wise this is a very disappointing disc. Good news first, we have the Danny Elfman score as an isolated DD5.1 track (and very good it is too). I am a fan of Elfman’s scores and this is a cracker. I’m afraid its downhill from now on though. Next up is a trailer that is anamorphic (even on the 4:3 side of the disc). Then there is a short text-only biography and film highlights section for each of the cast. There are also production notes, a dozen or so screens of text detailing production. All terribly exciting I’m sure you’ll agree. The isolated score almost rescues the package, but its not quite enough.
Well I love this film. It’s by no means one of Burton’s best, but it is a fun film nonetheless. I do recognise it has flaws and it’s not for everyone. The disc is a Jekyll and Hyde job. The picture is adequate, the sound is good, and the extras below par. Considering the treatment given to Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, we can but hope that this film is revisited for a special edition. Until then, this is a perfectly enjoyable disc at a good value price.