A look at the dwindling acclaim of Tim Burton
Arguably alongside Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton is one of the most widely popular and successful directors working today who can be considered something of an auteur. Though a problematic term for a variety of reasons, his distinctly gothic style and consistently similar subject matter allows for his films to be instantly recognisable as his own – a trait that was universally positive until the early 2000s. Following his disastrous remake of the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, his credibility as a director began to be questioned. Though not quite the fall from grace that M Night Shyamalan experienced, he has struggled to maintain critical relevancy since despite seemingly changing his aesthetic and thematic sensibilities very little.
So why do these tropes work so well for audiences and critics in his earlier films, but not so much in his later works? Is it simple fatigue, or have subtle changes lead to dramatic dips in quality? Should he stop directing altogether, or is this harsh criticism completely unreasonable? By comparing some of his early popular works with his later more controversial ones, some new perspectives will hopefully be uncovered.
Movie Musicals: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) vs Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Oddly enough, it is a film not directed by Burton that is often considered to best represent his oeuvre: The Nightmare Before Christmas, a gothic musical fairytale about a skeleton having an existential crisis. The first feature-length stop-motion movie to ever be produced, Burton wrote the original story and created the now iconic character designs, including lead character Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King, Sally the rag doll, and villain Ooogie Boogie. Under Henry Selick’s direction, the film became a commercial and critical success, grossing over $70 million during its original release on a budget of $18 million and spawning an unholy amount of Hot Topic merchandise featuring Burton’s creations. The songs match the aesthetic, effectively balancing Danny Elfman’s signature choirs and tinkling bells with the creepier voices of monsters like The Clown With The Tearaway Face – certainly more challenging for children than the tunes from Aladdin, which was released the previous year.
Though it may feature fewer songs than the previous, more beloved film adaption, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a musical at its core. In what is essentially a CGI recreation of the 1971 classic, Burton applies his signature visual style to the titular chocolate factory and the fates of the children who enter it. I look back fondly on this movie, particularly some of the visuals and comedy writing, but for the most part, all I can think is…why? Aside from some character development for Willy Wonka, which mostly just makes him seem like a discount Edward Scissorhands with chocolate instead of ice sculptures, no new viewpoint is added through this production. The bombastic song performances are impressive and catchy, but without the emotional resonance that is so easy to find in musicals like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.
Biographical Subject Matter: Ed Wood (1990) vs Big Eyes (2014)
Based on the life of a filmmaker close to Burton’s own heart, Ed Wood is a biopic that celebrates the creation of art in all its forms, whether good or not so good. Shot entirely in black and white, Burton’s aesthetic is slightly more subtle, though definitely comes through in the depiction of making cult classics like Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. The poorly done practical effects and God-awful acting, whilst mostly played for humour, also don’t feel out of place in Burton and the titular character’s shared monochrome world. Through Johnny Depp’s awkwardly endearing performance, you come to not only sympathise with Ed but to empathise with him, lamenting his failures and celebrating his successes as he does. Another director could have played the film entirely for laughs à la The Disaster Artist, but Burton’s affection for and kinship with the filmmaker comes through in every frame, lifting the film to a thoughtful drama and an acknowledgement of the value of optimism.
Strangely enough, Big Eyes suffers from an issue that Burton of all people is rarely criticised for: not going far enough stylistically. In depicting the troubled artistic career of Margaret Keane, known for her kitschy paintings of sad children with enormous eyes, he tells an interesting tale that doesn’t penetrate into the character as he did with Ed Wood. The colour palette is gently vibrant, the shots are appealing and the film is visually well executed, but not in a way that reveals any of Margaret’s inner world. Though you will for her to escape her oppressive and cruel husband, Margaret’s struggles are mostly externalised, and a greater exploration of the origins of her artistry and her worldview could have elevated the film from good to great. It almost feels that in responding to criticism and toning himself down, he loses sight of what made his earlier films so emotionally resonant.
Remakes: Batman (1989) vs Alice in Wonderland (2010)
The first movie adaption to truly bring The Dark Knight into a darker tone, Burton’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton, combined his signature gothic aesthetic with a grimmer plot and Jack Nicholson’s sinister turn as the Joker to create arguably one of the greatest Batman-based films. Presenting a classic struggle between the two characters for Gotham, the fairly basic story is enhanced by lending the two characters a more personal past relationship, and having them be linked by more than opposing ideologies. Nicholson’s disturbing grin and garish costumes are wonderfully juxtaposed against Keaton’s darker attire and the matte paintings used to depict a towering and intimidating Gotham reminiscent of 1980s comics like The Killing Joke, which Burton used as inspiration. So while the change in aesthetic was impressive, it was the depth of character that Burton brought to the big screen that has allowed this movie to endure.
Endurance is not a word I would associate with the other film in this category. Alice in Wonderland, despite sharing a title, bears little resemblance to the original novel, incorporating plot elements from The Jabberwocky and Alice Through The Looking Glass as well as ones created for the film. This straying from the source material alone is enough to potentially ruffle some feathers, but it’s not as though this is an immediate death sentence for a movie’s quality – just look at The Shining and Bridget Jone’s Diary. But in this case, the narrative points added feel formulaic and pointless, with a prophecy based story and a sense of coherence and predictability where Burton could have instead gone further with his strangeness. To be fair though, I feel as though Alice in Wonderland perfectly highlights a style of filmmaking that Burton has used for years: surface-level strangeness with a dull and played out plot. This isn’t to say that this is an inherently bad technique but after several decades of filmmaking alongside source material known for its bizarre plot progression, the issues with this formula are more obvious. Seeing this film at the IMAX when I was 11 certainly had the ‘cool’ factor, the CGI environments providing a thin coating of colour and personality, but on reflection, Burton provides very little else of significance. His apparent overuse of computer-generated imagery has been the source of much of Burton’s criticism, but I view it less as an issue in of itself, and more of a mask for greater issues.
B-Movies and Camp Value: Beetlejuice (1988) vs Dark Shadows (2012)
Constantly inspired by the likes of Vincent Price and 1950s kitsch horror, Burton’s love of B-movies has often crept into his own filmography, most notably in Beetlejuice, a cornucopia of bizarre set design, over the top performances, and unsettling yet mesmerising practical effects. The plot features newlyweds Barbara and Adam meeting an unfortunate demise in a car accident, fated to haunt their house which has been invaded by yuppies after their death. The premise may sound grim, but the execution feels more like the Halloween aisle of an Asda, in the best possible way. In a role far different to that of Batman, Michael Keaton is electric as the titular ghost with the most, his wiry hair and stripy suit giving the impression of a phantom used car salesman – his performance is definitely the most memorable aspect of the movie. Rather than providing a strong emotional core, Burton here focused his energy into creating a celebration of unadulterated weirdness against conformity – a concept interesting when new, but one that would seem less fresh in his later films.
Rather than carrying forward the spirit and aesthetic of camp through a new concept, Dark Shadows is more directly a remake of a 1960s gothic soap opera with the same name. It’s easy to understand what may have attracted Burton to this project, and the finished product was also easy to predict, but I find it intriguing that this most obvious of projects is his most critically panned, with only 37% on Rotten Tomatoes. When the vampire Barnabas awakens in the 1970s after being trapped by a witch for 200 years, he must navigate modern life and achieve revenge whilst dealing with his dysfunctional ancestors. Whilst entertaining, it almost feels like Burton is parodying himself at points; casting Johnny Depp as a literal vampire and having Helena Bonham Carter half-heartedly perform sex acts on him sounds like an outlandish SNL sketch. Set in a castle and including a performance from Alice Cooper, Dark Shadows could hardly be more Gothic on a surface level, but suffers like Alice in Wonderland from a plot too conventional for its own good. Here Burton celebrates not a new form of odd, but a brand of ‘weird’ that was deemed acceptable long ago.
Fatigue is undoubtedly an aspect of the inconsistent reception to Tim Burton’s more recent movies. His aesthetic has been successfully marketed by Disney and other studios for years now, eliminating the quirky-loner feel that he gained popularity for in movies like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands and perhaps giving previous fans the sense that he had sold out his image. But this alone does not explain such a dip.
Alongside this exhaustion, I feel as though there is a degree of truth to the idea that he has become more complacent, making movies without adding a personal flare as he did with earlier projects. This is a filmmaker who grew up a strange loner amongst the conformity of suburbia, and who has a belief in the goodness of humanity, as well as the idea that surfaces don’t reflect the individual underneath. Although interviews and a quick look at his Wikipedia page could have told you this, his early works reveal it all. If you had never heard of Burton previously, and just watched Dark Shadows or Alice In Wonderland, what would you learn about his viewpoint as a director? I’m willing to bet not much aside from his penchant for kitsch and monochrome spirals.
In my opinion, Burton’s best films are character studies at heart. Batman gives a brooding edge to what was widely considered a campy and comedic character just a decade prior, The Nightmare Before Christmas examines the loneliness Jack Skellington feels beneath a successful surface, and Edward Scissorhands is likely about the director himself; the plots of all of these films may be simplistic, but this hardly matters as they serve as a jumping off point for character development. His talent for giving these strange and visually unsettling creatures a soul and charm of their own is incredible, and if he is able to bring this out again I think a return to form would soon follow. Whether he will apply this to the upcoming Dumbo film, however, remains to be seen.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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