Burton has had it rough in the 21st century, delivering an occasional minor hit, accompanied by many misses. This year, he returns to isolated drama with Big Eyes, a biopic about Margaret Keane starring Amy Adams. While I eagerly await that film, I thought I’d take a look back through Burton’s career. Here’s what worked and what didn’t, all within the confines of Burton’s distinctively obscure area of the sandbox.
Tim Burton directed a handful of short films early in his career (Stalk of the Celery Monster, his thesis film at Cal Arts, is the short that landed him a job at Disney), but two in particular deserve specific mention. First is Vincent, a 6 minute stop-motion animated short about a boy with a vivid imagination who idolizes Vincent Price. Price himself narrates the short, itself a promising display of artistic expression. Price was Burton’s cinematic hero, and I simply can’t imagine the joy Burton got from working with such a legend. B
Burton’s breakout short, Frankenweenie, is about a young boy who brings his recently slain dog back to life through a clever electrical science experiment. Financed by Disney for $1 million, the film stars Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern as the boy’s parents, and includes an amusing cameo from Sofia Coppola (credited as “Domino”) as a frightened neighborhood girl. For fans of Burton’s work, it is a real pleasure to watch the short today and see the genesis of Burton’s signature style. Burton was just 25 years old when the movie was made, but the short has the confidence of a seasoned pro. B+
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of those films that defines my childhood. I can’t tell you how many times I watched this movie as a kid – wishing I had Pee-wee’s magic breakfast-making invention(s), laughing at Pee-wee fighting France-Ass in the pool, marveling at the massive Cabazon Dinosaurs, dancing to “Tequila,” loving the inside glimpse of the Warner Bros. back lot. This is the type of film in which quality is not important; all that matters is that it meant a great deal to me at a time in my life when I was looking for anything to mean a great deal to me.
Thankfully, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure actually is a good movie. It’s a strong debut from a filmmaker who boldly asserted his unique vision into every frame of the film. Many movies have somewhat similar plots to this one, but very few look and feel as new as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. A-
Bettlejuice is Tim Burton at his most endearingly macabre. The film is an ingenious juxtaposition from Leave it to Beaver fantasyland and Hell on Earth, but what makes it particularly great is that the only possible way to classify it is as a Tim Burton film. There’s simply nothing else to compare it to. Tim Burton has always invited us to lovingly observe the dark corner of his world, with Bettlejuice being, inarguably, one of his best invitations yet.
One final thought: as the title character of this film, Michael Keaton gives one of my all-time favorite performances. It’s an actor unhinged, completely void of pretension. Manic, hysterical, and utterly fascinating. I still can’t believe he’s only in the film for 18 minutes. A
In terms of unbiased opinions, I’m the ideal person to review a movie like Batman. I know next to nothing about the original comics, and am thereby unburdened with how dedicated the film is to its source material. I’m able to judge Batman (and, really, all other comic book films) as a standalone film. With that noted, I’m happy to say that I’ve always dug Burton’s Batman. There’s Michael Keaton doing a complete 180 from Bettlejuice, Kim Basinger adoringly playing a damsel in distress, Robert Wuhl being Robert Wuhl (a compliment), and, of course, Jack Nicholson creating one of cinema’s most iconic villains.
The film’s signature dark atmosphere, accompanied by Danny Elfman’s thrilling musical score, help sustain the moody tone throughout, but really, the star of this show is Nicholson. Whether he’s bopping around to Prince, or openly mocking Jack Palance, Nicholson’s Joker singlehandedly makes Batman worth revisiting again and again. A-
Edward Scissorhands represents the best of everything Tim Burton has to offer. It’s a sardonic critique on American suburbia, an indictment on cultural segregation; it’s dark, twisted, funny and profound. It’s a film about how we’re quick to judge that which we do not understand. A common theme in films, certainly, but because Edward Scissorhands is married to Burton’s distinct style so seamlessly, the film becomes (and remains) something far from ordinary.
I’m not sure if Johnny Depp has been better. In 1990, Depp was riding high off the success of 21 Jump Street, he could’ve had any role he wanted, yet he chose one that required very little speaking and severely altered his physical appearance. In doing this, Depp proved that he was a performer fully willing to give himself to the material. It’s a captivating, star making turn that made a great film even better. From the many splendid performances, to the chic cookie-cutter art direction, to Elfman’s beautiful score, Edward Scissorhands is a masterful vision from a wholly unique mind. A+
There was something about Batman Returns that never really did it for me. Perhaps it was Danny DeVito, who, while giving a creepy performance as the Penguin, was a villain I never found remotely intimidating. Or maybe it was Christopher Walken, and how he seemed to be milking the most exaggerated aspects of his personality. Could have been Michael Keaton, who played it curiously safe compared to his other outings with Burton. For whatever reason, I wrote Batman Returns off and didn’t think about it for years.
Then, just for the hell of it, I decided to give the flick a fresh spin a few months ago, and I discovered a very different film than the one I remembered. No, I still don’t find the Penguin menacing, but DeVito is perfectly cast, and owns the character’s grotesqueness throughout. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Catwoman, is also superb, playing innocence lost to great success. Batman Returns isn’t as accomplished as its predecessor, but I was so pleased to discover how well it has aged. B
Very few filmmakers could make such a great movie about the worst director of all time. Part of the fun in watching Burton’s Ed Wood is realizing that Wood and Burton aren’t really that dissimilar. They’re both genre filmmakers, passionate about telling unique stories in unique ways. Money matters little, the power of art trumps all. Obviously, Burton has a more honed in vision for his films, but his encapsulation of the young, idealistic Ed Wood remains one of his finest achievements.
Much of this can be credited to Johnny Depp, who gives one of his most mature performances as Wood. Part tortured genius, part unequivocal fool, there’s a specific charm Depp brought to Wood that makes the performance endure. While rewatching the film last week, I found myself appreciating it so much more. Arguably the most sincere movie to spawn from the Burton/Depp collaboration. A
Mars Attacks! is a completely decent genre picture – big and silly and fun, consistently aware of its own stupidity. It’s one of those old school disaster films: get a hefty budget, pack the flick with stars, throw in some bitchin’ special effects, and let the good times roll. If viewed as parody, Mars Attacks! works quite well. This isn’t to call the film great (don’t be serious), but rather, to call it what it is: a goofy B-movie spoof that owns itself throughout. If Ed Wood were alive in 1996, he would’ve absolutely adored Mars Attacks!, which is meant as a proud endorsement. B-
Stepping away from the kitschy sentimentality of Mars Attacks!, Burton delivered a pitch black, hard-R take on Washington Irvin’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Sure, the quirkiness of Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) and the film’s ghoulish production design (captured expertly through Emmanuel Lubezki’s lens) make it obvious that this is indeed a Tim Burton movie, but overall, Sleepy Hollow is one of the darkest efforts of Burton’s career.
Above all else, I appreciate how unflinching this film is with its violence. Much of the aggression in Burton’s films is purposefully cartoonish, thereby fitting comfortably within a family-friendly rating. But Sleepy Hollow pushes things in a way Burton rarely does. It’s a dangerous film that Burton and his cast (namely Christopher Walken, who plays the Headless Horseman with fiery glee) fully embrace. I always enjoy revisiting the film and admiring its dark world. B+
This one does nothing for me. It’s a poorly acted, wildly unnecessary remake that does very little to better the careers of anyone involved. Save, notably, makeup guru Rick Baker, whose contribution to the film is admittedly worthy of praise. But otherwise, I saw Planet of the Apes the weekend it was released in theaters, and hadn’t attempted to watch it again before this post. A few days ago, I managed to make it through the first act before turning it off, so I suppose that counts for something. D-
What I admire most about Big Fish is the way it depicts family separation. When two people who are related decide to stop speaking to one another, rarely is it a conscious decision by either of them. One is usually fed up with the other, and they simply cease making or taking the others’ calls. Months pass, then a year. And one day, you realize you haven’t spoken to your father in three years. Maybe you realized your life was a little easier without him in it. Maybe he was too stubborn to pick up the phone and make amends. That’s what I love about the opening moments of this film, its subtle understanding that separation is gradual, not defined by just one specific moment of deceit.
Sadly, I can’t say that I’m as transfixed by the rest of the film. I appreciate the performances by everyone involved (if only there were more of Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard), and love that Burton tackled some mature material while injecting it with his unique sensibilities. But ultimately, I grow tired of Big Fish’s gimmick slightly before its exceptional conclusion. Give me just the beginning and end of this film, and we’re all set. B-
My feelings about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are varied and borderline nonsensical. On one hand, I’m happy to admit that Johnny Depp is hysterical in this film. He gives himself over to Willy Wonka, delightfully inhabiting all of the character’s quirks. Additionally, Freddie Highmore gives a loving performance as Charlie, and David Kelly has a ball as Grandpa Joe. Why then do I have trouble recommending this film? What about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leaves me with an overall air of indifference?
It isn’t due to my boundless appreciation of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a film I will forever love. I’m fully able to separate the two. I suppose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory doesn’t work for me because it’s simply too much. Too long, too loud, too bright – too much. I can find no real, egregious faults with it, but I have no interest in revisiting it either. Not good or bad, it just is. C+
Similarly to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I have a generally blasé attitude toward Corpse Bride. An animated musical fantasy isn’t exactly my preferred type of film, yet I give credit to Burton for going back to his animation roots and attempting to break fresh ground. Interestingly, the film was shot on the consumer-grade (barring you’re a wealthy consumer) Canon 1D, making the film pop wonderfully. But beyond its aesthetic charm, Corpse Bride fails to stand out in any sort of memorable way. C
I’m in the minority concerning my dissenting opinions about Burton’s Sweeney Todd. The film begins well enough, with an innocent barber (Johnny Depp) escaping prison and returning to London with one hell of a vendetta. But once Sweeny Todd has his first taste of blood, the film quickly slides downhill. Stuck in a never ending repetition of slit, spill, crunch, song, slit, spill, crunch song, the film’s violence grows dull and uninteresting, and the fact this is scored to songs that are neither good nor poor only adds to the monotony.
Now, as is often the case with Burton’s films, Sweeny Todd looks fantastic (Dante Ferretti’s art direction justly won an Oscar), and I certainly give the filmmaker credit for going darker than he ever had. But ultimately, my thoughts on Sweeny Todd are identical to many of Burton’s recent films: there is nothing remarkable and nothing awful about it. It’s simply middle brow, lost in a sea of other, better films of its kind. C-
Alice in Wonderland, however, is far from middle brow, as it is one of the worst films I’ve seen in the past few years. I remember watching this in the theater a few years ago and being plagued by useless 3D, an incoherent plot, headache-inducing CGI, piercing accents, and God knows what else. I was a newspaper film critic at the time, so I was literally paid to see this movie, and that was barely enough motivation to keep me from walking out. But hey, although Alice in Wonderland wasn’t for me, it did go on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, so, you know, there’s that. D-
The idea of an ancient vampire waking up in ‘70s London could be gold for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. It’s a sort of off-kilter take on Edward Scissorhands – the outsider, lost and abandoned on his own. But unfortunately, the two do little to capitalize on the material, letting Dark Shadows drift into half laughs and a muddled narrative. The film’s plot is overly complicated and eventually goes nowhere, and the ensemble cast, while impressive (always great to see Michelle Pfeiffer), is too stacked to make room for standouts. As usual, the film is visually splendid, as captured through the lens of Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Inside Llewyn Davis), but as a whole, it doesn’t add up to anything of real significance. C-
Much of my appreciation for Burton’s full length Frankenweenie is the notion of never forgetting where you came from. I find it very noble that Burton revisited the material that helped define his career 30 years earlier. For this full length version, Burton adopts a fully animated narrative, but maintains the style and sense of humor of his original short. The talented cast, including Burton vets Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder, all contribute stellar voice work, maintaining a delightful vibe throughout. If you’re a fan of Burton’s stop-motion film, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the film. Others may find that, even at 87 minutes long, it runs a tad long. B
Big Eyes is a drama about famed painter Margaret Keane. The film was penned by Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski and stars Amy Adams and Keane, and Christoph Waltz as her husband. Here’s to hoping this marks a return to dramatic form for Burton.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Just Plain Bad
Planet of the Apes
Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland