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THE RISE AND FALL OF TIM BURTON – Hey, Remember When He Used to Make Good Movies?

December 20 2012

From Beetlejuice and Batman to remake after remake after remake – what went so horribly wrong?

by Kim Sorensen

What happened to Tim Burton? How did a gifted director whose early movies combined a beautifully haunted expressiveness with a deeply humane empathy for the socially awkward outsider end up a mere cliché, trapped in a dull version of his own aesthetic? Burton continues to oblige Hollywood’s bottomless hunger for new crap based on old greatness? Burton hasn’t made a movie from an original screenplay since 1994′s Ed Wood. For the past several years he has indulged in an obsession with re-creating material from his childhood which is paying off commercially, but not creatively. I have taken a trip through his filmography to determine where this shift happened and have created three separate lists in chronological order to show how his career has failed his fans.

The Rise…

1. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Somehow Paul Reubens allowed Tim Burton to direct the Pee-Wee movie that he wrote. It’s kind of amazing that a director’s first film was PeeWee’s Big Adventure, and it grossed over $40 million. Let’s face it Pee Wee isn’t great because of the direction it’s great because of the acting and the story Paul Reubens wrote.

2. Beetlejuice (1988)

Beetlejuice is a great horror comedy that Burton really has never been able to duplicate.
You have great scenes with Winona Ryder as the quirky goth girl and her ghost BFFs Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis. There’s a message in their somewhere about pretentiousness and morality but it’s mostly just a really fun, twisted movie and gave us a good cartoon.

3. Batman (1989)

I love Tim Burton’s Batman. I really do. Is it the best or most accurate representation of the world’s greatest detective? Of course not. Is it still a good movie? Yes. From a business standpoint it is amazing that Burton got to direct this movie considering it was his third movie and nothing like his previous two films. Batman grossed over $400 million worldwide. There are problems with Batman: Kim Basinger’s acting (worst fainting ever), Batman kills people, the complete campiness of the Joker, etc. It’s still a good movie, even with its flaws.

4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edward Scissorhands is perhaps Burton’s best film. It’s perfectly melds the gothic tones with Americana in a beautifully tragic love story. Johnny Depp portrays the title character of the unfinished Edward amazingly while looking remarkably like Robert Smith. Everyone in this film is amazing Dianne Weist, Winona Ryder, Anthony Michael Hall (who knew the nerd from The Breakfast Club would grow up to be that?) and of course the late Vincent Price as Edward’s creator. Edward Scissorhands is said to be an autobiographical account of Burton’s childhood in California as the strange outsider, but we’ll get to that.

5. Batman Returns (1992)

Burton returned to Gotham for Batman Returns. It grossed $282 million worldwide, financially successful but not as profitable as its predecessor. Batman Returns is not a bad movie. It is however not a good Batman movie. I am a fan of the darker themed Batman. Those are the comics I read, and still read, and I know that Batman is not campy Adam West. I loved Batman Returns when I was a kid, but now that I’m older re-watching it I have more and more problems with it. The beginning of the film is an origin of the Penguin, and everything about the Penguin (his actions, his lair, his bombs), the “death” of Selina Kyle and her emergence as a Catwoman are just off. I really don’t know how to describe it other than as Tim Burton-y. That’s really my biggest problem with Batman Returns, and Batman to a lesser extent. Burton’s Batman films are not Batman, the Dark Knight. They are films about an eccentric loner Tim Burton outsider that calls himself Batman. Burton puts his own quirkiness above the character instead of working his style around the iconic character.

6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

This is one of my favorite Tim Burton films, although a better description would be my favorite Tim Burton movie that’s actually not a Tim Burton movie. Yep, The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick, Burton was busy directing Batman Returns. It was created by Burton with characters and an original story that he wrote. It has great musical numbers, a good story, and awesome animation. Nightmare is a masterpiece, and helped generate a renewed interest in stop motion animation.

7. Ed Wood (1994)

Burton’s biopic of the worst director ever was Burton’s lowest grossing film, but I really like it. Come on Martin Landau won the Oscar for his irascible, profanity-spewing, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi, a husk of old Hollywood whom Ed discovers holed up in a Baldwin Hills lair, drinking formaldehyde, and cursing that hack Boris Karloff. Burton again cast his buddy Johnny Depp as the title character and it’s his performance and the performances of the other actors that makes the film great; Bill Murray as the almost transsexual Bunny Breckinridge is just fabulous.

The Decline…

1. Mars Attacks! (1996)

There seems to be a divide when it comes to Burton’s Sci-fi film Mars Attacks!; people either love it or hate it. Honestly I’m really ambivalent about it. I find it humorous but not enough to wear out my copy like I did with Edward Scissorhands. I can also see how people would not like it. Box office goers did not like it. Mars Attacks! Cost over $100 million to make it and took in less than half of that domestically, and barely broke even worldwide. Yet Hollywood never wavered in their faith in the Tim Burton cash cow.

2. Superman Lives (unfilmed, circa 1997-1998)

Technically this film never got made but people should know about this. Burton spent a year prepping a Superman reboot, with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. Sets were built, locations were scouted, troublingly Starlight Express–like costumes were tested, but the script never came together and Burton ended up dropping out. Thankfully the film was never made; Cage was bad enough in Ghost Rider.

3. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I really like Sleepy Hollow. As a literature nerd perhaps I shouldn’t but I do. Burton once again pimped out BFF Johnny Depp to play Ichabod Crane in his supernatural, action, gothic, macabre version of Washington Irving’s classic story. It of course does not exactly follow the source material, and we did not need creepy flashbacks of Ichabod’s mother played by Burton’s then-girlfriend. He really needs to stop putting his girlfriends in his movies. Sleepy Hollow grossed over $200 million worldwide and Burton could go and make whatever other crap he wanted.

4. Planet of the Apes (2001)

I absolutely despise 99% of remakes. I have never determined why Hollywood shoves them down our throats. In 2000, Burton first jumped on the remake bandwagon with Planet of the Apes. Helena Bonham Carter gives her first but unfortunately not last performance in her honey Tim Burton’s movies. I absolutely hate everything about this movie: the story, the acting (really Mark Wahlberg?) the awful ending. The only good things this film has going for it are the lack of gothic Tim Burton visuals and that Tim Roth turned down the role of Snape in Harry Potter to do this movie. No offense to Tim Roth but he is not Snape, but at the same time I really hope he fired his agent.

5. Big Fish (2003)

Even though he’d been in a decline Burton surprised me with his 2003 film about fathers and sons. Perhaps because Burton was dealing with the death of his parents he was able to put more effort, more heart, and more soul into this film than his previous films. Going back and forth through time and his use of magic realism and the Southern gothic was a nice change of pace. I know lots of people that didn’t care for Big Fish, but I like it. It garnered critical acclaim and was nominated for four Golden globes and an Academy Award for Elfman’s score.

6. Corpse Bride (2005)

First and foremost I am completely biased about this film because I have never seen all of it. I’ve tried to watch it several times and could just never make it all the way through. Mostly because it’s not The Nightmare Before Christmas which is by far a superior film. In this film we have an animated Depp and Carter as the main characters of a man who marries a corpse.(Still a better love story than Twilight.) I know plenty of people that like this movie, it became a part of pop culture. There is a ton of merchandising, fansites, even hundreds of pictures of tattoos when you Google image search Corpse Bride. I just don’t like it.

The Crash Landing

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

For some reason once the 2000s hit Burton loved doing remakes. After an abysmal attempt at Planet of the Apes he tried again with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I love Willy Wonka, it is an amazing film even though it doesn’t completely follow Roald Dahl’s book. Burton decided to make a movie that was more true to Dahl’s work. In case you haven’t read the book Burton’s film is not true to the novel either. Burton incorporates more things from the novel but of course he adds creepy nonsensical flashbacks and a stupid ending. Once again Burton pimps out his BFF Johnny Depp and girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter. Thankfully Carter is not in the film for very long, but Depp gives us a horrible performance as another Burton caricature. He shows up, delivers his lines, but he’s not the great actor that we know he is.

2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

The Broadway musical Sweeney Todd was almost too perfect for Burton. It had all the essential elements: gore, Gothic, elaborate sets and costumes, darkness, and musical numbers. Depp’s performance is much better in this than in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps because of the musical element that was out of Depp’s usual repertoire. I enjoyed the film for the most part. I loved the play and certain things that were left out I missed but considering when in Burton’s career he made this film, it’s amazing it’s this good.

3. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I don’t think there is a word to describe how much I hate this movie. I know for years that drug and other counter cultures have embraced Alice. Why Burton’s movie looks like a goth kid’s bad trip is beyond me. Also, can anyone explain to me where this ridiculous story came from? Why is Alice 19 and engaged? I hate everything about this movie. Alice made a billion dollars worldwide. A billion dollars! Everything about it feels cliché. Plus it has the worst ending to a Burton film ever! Spoiler Warning: Alice has saved the day and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter dances. I really wish I was making that up.

4. Dark Shadows (2012)

I refused to watch this movie on principal after watching the trailer. Dark Shadows is just one more thing from Burton’s childhood that he has latched onto and drowned in Burton-y production design. Just no.

5. Frankenweenie (2012)

Burton had originally made a live action Frankenweenie in 1984, but it was never released. Then in 2012 he made yet another stop motion animation film that was remarkably similar to his 1984 short story. I know it has some favorable reviews but I just refuse to watch it. Also how bored are you that instead of creating a new story you remake your own earlier work? That’s just lazy, Tim.

After my little trip through over twenty years of Tim Burton’s career I still am not entirely sure where the creative decline in Burton’s career came from. Maybe it’s when he met Helena Bonham Carter. Maybe it’s when Johnny Depp realized that he would always have a career through Tim Burton and just stopped trying to be a good actor. Maybe it’s because Burton stopped writing and started ripping off things from his childhood. Honestly I think that it’s the fact that Burton has always made films about the quirky outsider because he has a childhood trauma of being a social unaccepted outsider. Unfortunately, Burton never grew up, I guess he thought he could be the gothic Peter Pan. Burton apparently forgot that when a person doesn’t grow up they also don’t mature, and Burton’s films showcase his maturity stagnation as both a director and storyteller.

– Kim Sorensen


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