This week, Tim Burton’s underrated and oft-forgotten American comedy-drama biopic, Ed Wood, turns 20. In celebration, Consequence of Sound‘s film staff reflects on the auteur’s career, specifically his recent work, and attempts to answer the one question: What the hell happened?
Justin Gerber (JG): For nearly a decade, Tim Burton’s unique direction was something up-and-comers could only dream of: an inventive mind who somehow managed to make it in Hollywood, screwing with the infrastructure and leaving a creative stamp on everything he touched, from short films (the glorious B&W Frankenweenie) to summer blockbusters (Prince’s Batman). While he made box office bank with the Batman films, it was his original works that leave the lasting impressions. He was unafraid to use stop-motion animation in his movies, notably Large Marge’s frightening transformation in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the Sandworm in Beetlejuice. He was working in an industry that was heading towards CGI and away from anything deemed “hokey” by general audiences. But do you know why these Harryhausen-like effects worked on us? Because his movies had true-blue emotions back then. There were recurring themes of isolation (Edward Scissorhands, Lydia in Beetlejuice), determination (Pee-Wee), and dreaming big (Ed Wood). My question to the three of you is simple, and I believe I mentioned it already: What the hell happened to Tim Burton?
Dominick Mayer (DM): First of all, it really should be known as Prince’s Batman, shouldn’t it? And to begin approaching a question that’s probably more complex than it seems, I’ll go to bat for a couple of his latter-day works alongside those you mentioned as being fairly rich in emotion. The easiest example here is Big Fish, which might be the most openhearted and emotional film he’s put out. I’ll also go to bat for Sweeney Todd, a film for which there wasn’t a more perfectly suited director than Burton. He was able to have his latter-day cake and eat it too with a movie that was broadly accessible, and for once he maintained his long-running partnership with Johnny Depp in a context in which Depp was totally appropriate.
But much like the Depp partnership, I think we can all agree that a great many laurels have been rest upon of late. Though I’ve noted two more recent-ish movies of his, Sweeney Todd was his last truly critically praised film, and that’s now coming up on seven years of age. But here’s the thing: That film made nowhere near as much money in the U.S. as Alice in Wonderland. I’d argue that film is where the general quality of his work really started to take a turn, because his version of Wonderland felt more like a cynical parody of a Tim Burton movie by somebody uninterested in his work than a Burton movie. It had the Depp appearance and the mall-goth aesthetics and what have you, but to loop back to Justin’s point, the emotion was missing. That’s been prevalent in a lot of his subsequent stuff as well.
Leah Pickett (LP): I stand with Dominick’s point that Burton has in fact made several inventive and emotionally resonant films post his ’90s glory days (I like Big Fish and Sweeney Todd, too), but I also wonder if our nostalgia for Burton’s earlier work is affecting our willingness to fully embrace his newer films, and thus, it’s a big part of the problem I like to call “Tim Burton Fatigue.”
Yes, audiences are starting to grow tired of the schtick Burton has come to rely on — madcap Johnny Depp, gray color palettes, Hot Topic marketability — and that’s understandable. Over the course of a 20-year career, trademark stylistic choices are bound to turn stale. However, it’s also what we’ve come to expect from him and what we rely on as well. I’m tempted to complain about Burton becoming lazy in recent years, that he should abandon his “mall-goth” bag of quirks and surprise us with something completely atypical to his oeuvre, but would it be a “Tim Burton movie” then? We know what to expect when we see a Wes Anderson or Tarantino film, and the same applies here. Burton has a distinct visual style; spooky mise-en-scène is his thing. Fantastical dreamscapes and carnival freakshow-like characters are his signature. He is the very definition of an auteur, and that is what we (used to) love about him.
Personally, I don’t care if the classic “Tim Burton style” remains a constant throughout all of his films. As long as there’s a genuine emotional pull, I’m satisfied. Because that’s when Burton’s films really shine: when a totally out-of-this-world premise is grounded by a human core. And that’s where I think films like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have misstepped: not enough heart, too much autopilot. In the greatest of Burton’s films — which for me would be, in no particular order, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which Burton did not direct but wrote and conceived), Big Fish, Batman, and Ed Wood — the zaniness is offset by taut, wholly original stories and characters easy to root for and connect with, despite their whimsical origins and circumstances.
So, maybe that’s the key. If we can agree that Alice and Charlie were phoned in, then perhaps Burton should stretch his limits, break out of his comfort zone, and give us an original story and characters to root for again.
Michael Roffman (MR): I’m not sure I buy the whole nostalgia angle. I caught Beetlejuice earlier last year, at random, and found myself not only in hysterics but surprised at how well it holds up — and there’s a reason for this. The film works on rudimentary principles: cast, crew, script, and chemistry. Everyone rightfully points to Michael Keaton’s 10-minute performance — after all, it is his best work to date (sorry, My Life) — but look deeper. Jeffrey Jones sneaks in some genius visual gags, Alec Baldwin’s paternal chemistry with Winona Ryder adds a comedic yet melancholy touch, and Catherine O’Hara somehow has us loving an obnoxious faux art house yuppie. That was the genius of Burton; it was not the grays, the Caligari-aping, or the Johnny Depp. It was that he was able to concoct a paradoxical team and construct an onscreen bridge between surrealism and realism.
Look at your list of Burton’s greatest films again. Only two of them feature Depp, and those two are arguably amidst Burton’s golden era, when the same template I’ve already described with Beetlejuice was applied ad nauseam. With Edward Scissorhands, he had the warmth of Dianne Wiest and the brilliant (and, at the time, risky) casting of Anthony Michael Hall; in Ed Wood, he managed to pair the great Martin Landau with a pre-Andersonfied Bill Murray. These were bold casting choices, and what’s more, the right casting choices. You also have to keep in mind that Burton found Depp during arguably his strongest span of movies. It’s worth noting that Depp is just as lazy with his film choices these days — ahem, The Tourist, Transcendence, and Pirates 1-40 — as Burton is with his. I guess it’s just nice they’re able to keep each other company.
Now, as most of you already suggested, there are glimmers of brilliance, but I’d argue more for a single glimmer. 2003’s Big Fish is his last grand achievement, and if you want to cap off his last great film with Depp, I’d stop at 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. (To be fair, 2012’s Frankenweenie was cute and agreeable, but that’s where I’d weigh into the nostalgia.) Everything else has been a paint-by-numbers production, starting with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I’d love to beat in the middle of the field with Gene Wilder Office Space-style. From there, it’s been the sort of predictable exploitation that you’d expect from an SNL parody of Burton.
Having said all that, I’d still prefer he revisit his Batman universe with Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robin Williams in a quasi-take on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But, whatever … #McWorld
JG: Good points all around. Leah, while nostalgia may play a small part in how we react to Burton’s earlier films, I have to agree with Mike that its impact isn’t that great. For example, Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure hold up remarkably well. Both featuring bizarre humor (two words: Pee-Wee and “Day-O”) mixed together with nightmarish sequences, somehow made accessible by Burton’s playhouse mentality, with effects you can reach out and touch. I don’t want to sound like an old-timer, but there is something more effective about the physical special effects that Burton used throughout the ‘80s into the ‘90s than the CGI he has relied on during the 20th century. With Burton, I am much more affected and taken in by the seconds we get in the sandwormin’ dunes of Beetlejuice, as well as the minutes we spend shrunk down, wandering around Adam Maitland’s model town. Alice in Wonderland leaves me cold. Alice in Greenscreenland more like it.
There are still oddballs in Burton’s later films, but when you have one person portraying said oddball, the oddity transforms into familiarity. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane. Johnny Depp plays Willy Wonka. Johnny Depp plays Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins. Johnny Depp plays The Mad Hatter. The last live-action film of Burton’s without Depp is Big Fish, which everyone here seems to love and deservedly so. Ed Bloom is a strange bird, but he’s his own strange bird, sans gothic font. It’s nigh impossible to compare Big Fish to everything that came after, because…
Oh, God. Forget what came after for a moment. What about what came just before Big Fish? How have we neglected to bring up Planet of the Apes? Is it like Stephen King’s It, where as a group we only remember the monster every 27 years, or in this case the film?
LP: Justin, no! I had conveniently forgotten about the existence of this film until now. I shake my fist at the sky for this injustice!
But in all seriousness, Burton has made plenty of mediocre films that don’t star Mark Wahlberg. In addition to Alice and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there’s Dark Shadows: an abysmal dud that, again, suffered from a profound lack of originality. And I think that’s the main problem. Instead of coming up with new and exciting stories in recent years, Burton has been relying on stories that have already been told. Even Frankenweenie, which I found enjoyable enough, was just a full-length version of a short film Burton made in 1984.
In response to Mike’s and Justin’s rebuttals about nostalgia, I think it’s obvious that we are nostalgic for Burton’s earlier work, but there are several reasons for that. His visions were new and exciting, yes, but I would also argue that he was far more inventive — hungrier to prove himself, perhaps — and less complacent. I also side with Justin in the old-school effects vs. CGI debate, and I’m only 25! But whenever I return to a movie like Jurassic Park and compare the mostly animatronic dinosaurs to their CGI counterparts today, I’m still more impressed by the former. Ditto to puppets like Yoda and E.T. Maybe that’s because they are “real,” as in actually in the shot with the actors, providing genuine reactions, as opposed to obviously computerized versions that audiences know are invisible to everyone shooting the scene. I get the same feeling from Burton’s later films and tend to gravitate more towards the creatures of Beetlejuice than those in, say, Planet of the Apes or Alice. Maybe that’s also why I still have a soft spot for his work in stop-motion animation; at least the characters are three-dimensional, literally, and not entirely digitized.
What do you guys think of Burton’s newest project, Big Eyes, from what we can ascertain so far? Call me an eternal optimist, but I think it looks promising.
DM: I’m still not totally sold on Big Eyes until a trailer sees the light of day. As the subject matter goes, Walter and Margaret Keane’s story is actually perfect for Burton, as it tells the two varieties of story he does best, in one. Through Margaret Keane, you have the story of the unconventional genius, the bashful type whose unremarkable demeanor masked a visionary. It’s a story he’s been telling since Edward Scissorhands (or really, the Frankenweenie short), and it’s squarely within his wheelhouse. And without saying too much, because I don’t buy into spoiler warnings for historical events, with Walter Keane you have a perfect case of a charlatan with delusions of grandeur. It’s Burton’s chance to take on a real-life story that doesn’t offer a particularly huge amount of room for a lot of the recent tendencies we’ve discussed so far, and it’ll be an interesting litmus test for whether his chops are still intact or if years of phoning it in have taken a larger toll.
Leah only mentioned this in passing, but I’m hoping the choice to take on Big Eyes might’ve been a self-aware response to Dark Shadows. Because good God was that film terrible. From the weirdly leering sexual overtones related to everything about Chloe Grace Moretz’s character to the random, jarring, tonal shifts into graphic violence, it just became this gangly beast that bore little to no resemblance to the show on which it was ostensibly based. It was, as previously discussed, the epitome of an artist resting on their laurels by doing what’s generally been well-received before. There are fewer and fewer distinctive filmmakers going at the mainstream Hollywood level today, and Burton, for his faults, is still among them. And we need more filmmakers whose style is distinctly theirs, even if they go through rough patches.
To conclude my point, we all forgot Planet of the Apes because that’s not something people speak about in polite society.
As for Big Eyes, I remain optimistic, albeit slightly. He’s working with a cast of actors who haven’t played prominent roles in his earlier films, if they’ve ever appeared at all, and for that alone we should be grateful. Leah touched upon the filmographies of Wes Anderson/Quentin Tarantino films as easily identifiable, and for the most part it still works for them. I don’t believe, however, that the same can be said for Burton. Fortunately, the last time he escaped the darkness and Depp was for another movie with “Big” in the title, and we all agree Big Fish worked out just fine. Perhaps Big Eyes will be the movie Burton needs to propel him into a creative future full of innovative ideas.
So, what conclusions have we reached when it comes to Mr. Burton? There are several directors who peaked years ago but have yet to hang it up. John Carpenter dominated the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he lost something along the way. The same can be said for George Romero and even Brian De Palma. Burton’s success from a commercial standpoint is somehow at an all-time high thanks to Alice in Wonderland, but the same can be said for the Transformers film franchise. Surely, Burton wants more than that. I, for one, keep the faith. It seems impossible after those early films to believe that Burton was of a certain age and not a director who can last through the decades.
Thade became an Abe Lincoln-type leader in the past in the ending of Planet of the Apes, right? Sorry. I can’t let it go.
LP: I would love to see Burton make movies sans Johnny Depp and wife Helena Bonham Carter for at least the next few years. He could have skated by on uninspired yet guaranteed-to-be-profitable fare because he needed the financial cushion (Kooky Burton films based on the beloved texts of Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl? Ka-ching!), or maybe he has been suffering from whatever the director’s equivalent is to writer’s block.
But I do think that Burton remains a visionary; and this could be my indomitable optimism talking again, but I also believe that he has more stories to tell and perhaps another Beetlejuice-level masterpiece in him, too. Although at this point, after trudging through the wretched slog that was Alice, Charlie, and Dark Shadows — not to mention Planet of the Apes, or preferably, The Movie That Must Not Be Named — I’d be happy if Big Eyes just took a step in the right direction.
For me, a great Burton film is one that comes from an organic place, not an already fleshed-out universe that then becomes Burton-ized, as in the four films mentioned above that we can all agree are his worst. In a cinematic landscape so densely populated with sequels and remakes, my hope is that Burton will reemerge as the renegade, the outsider, and the outlier. He’s an established name now, so he shouldn’t have to worry about drawing a crowd. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, which could have been a fantastically eerie Burton film, come to think of it: If he builds something truly magical again, we will come.
MR: Depp isn’t exactly the problem. He just doesn’t need to be center stage. Look at how great he was in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Rango, or even his bit role in 21 Jump Street. Maybe if he’s relegated to something like a cameo, similar to Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands, he’ll make an impact. Sometimes less is more, especially for Burton, and certainly for Depp. Then again, judging from the guy’s recent string of flops, this might be the most interesting time for Depp. Maybe he’ll get really weird and start doing off-Broadway theater. Who knows?
Leah, I couldn’t agree more that “a great Burton film is one that comes from an organic place.” Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean he should stop sourcing external works. Big Fish and Mars Attacks were both adaptations, and they excelled (at least for me) because he took that material and twisted it into something that wasn’t full-on Burton and still comparable to the source. Something like Sleepy Hollow got away with his gothic style simply because the source material demanded it, and I’d also point out that he hadn’t carved a film of that accord since, maybe, 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, which he only wrote and produced.
I think that’s why we’re so open to a project like Big Eyes. It’s not a fantastical production; instead, it hearkens back to the variety that Burton exemplified in the ’90s. Look at how that decade played out for him: Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, and Sleepy Hollow. You guys are scoffing at his remake of Planet of the Apes, but hey, at least it was a different genre and clearly a departure from his other works. Coupled with Big Fish, they’re actually the only pictures in his post-2000 work that a.) didn’t involve Depp and b.) his now predictable CGI-loaded gloss. Well, Frankenweenie didn’t star Depp, but you get the point.
What’s the point? I think whatever happens with Big Eyes, it’ll be a cut above anything he’s done in a long time.
DM: You could really say of a lot of filmmakers that some of their best stuff comes from trying things that are not only out of their comfort zone but that they didn’t necessarily have a hand in coming up with. For one, M. Night Shyamalan needs to do this immediately if it’s not already too late. But with Big Eyes, I think the excitement we’re sharing comes from not knowing what’s going to happen. It could be good; it could be a rote biopic. Time will tell. But it’s Burton working with unfamiliar faces and a reported budget of only about $10 million, so it’s already a pretty dramatic sea change before we’ve even had a chance to really see something from it. It’s not that he needs to “go away” or anything so dramatic, but rather that he needs to get back to a place of genuine imagination, not forced visions of what imagination should hypothetically look like.