A Tim Burton Report Card – 08-12-01

(This is an i-Pocalypse flashback to an essay that was originally posted on an earlier version of this site in August of 2001.)

With the recent release of the remake (or re-imagination, or re-envisioning, or retread, or whatever you like) of Planet of the Apes, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a step back and look at how our boy Tim has done so far. We will only be looking at his theatrical releases and a couple of his shorts. We will not delve into any of his TV work or his producing work. Dates and other information used here have been pulled mainly from IMDb.

Let’s start off with a little background and we will segue from there into each film.

Tim Burton, according to my understanding, got his start at Disney as an animator. He became something of a featured project there. They gave him an incredible amount of latitude to work on his own projects while working on the more Disney oriented product he was assigned to at the time. From there he quickly made the jump to features, where he has established himself as a quirky but visionary director.

While at Disney Animation he did a beautiful little short piece called Vincent (1982). Based upon a poem he composed as a tribute to his boyhood idol Vincent Price, Burton crafted here a mesmerizing little animated film about a small boy that fantasizes that he is Vincent Price. Not the actor Vincent, but the many characters that Vincent has played. Amazingly, and to the great benefit of the film itself, Vincent Price himself narrates. This film hits all the right notes and works perfectly. It is original and dark and sweet and innocent all at once.

Next up for Burton was 1984’s Frankenweenie. I was not terribly enamored of this one, though this is the film most often pointed to as signs of his early genius. He apparently made this, too, while still at Disney Animation. It was a live action short, shot in stark black and white about a young boy that brings his dog back from the grave ala Frankenstein, and all of the innocent trouble the dog gets in while the boy tries to keep his parents and neighbors from finding out what he has done. It is not a terrible short film, but it just didn’t grab me quite like Vincent did. The choice of black and white is a given, based on the subject matter. A simple choice to make, even Mel Brooks would agree, though to listen to Burton apologists, it was a choice bordering on heavenly inspiration and genius of the highest order. The locations, however, looked like a studio suburban backlot from the mid 70’s. A kind of Partridge Family neighborhood without the bright colors. This, to me, was self defeating and tended to undermine the black and white.

Frankenweenie however caught the attention of Paul Reubens. Reubens is, of course, PeeWee Herman. A former Gong Show regular and Groundlings comedy troupe member, Reubens had been an underground favorite for quite a while, and they were looking at making a feature film based on his PeeWee character. (This shouldn’t be surprising at all, taking into consideration all of the feature films based on completely throwaway SNL characters that come out on a yearly basis.)

Written by Reubens and the late Phil Hartman, Tim Burton was a natural for the job of Director. With its uneven mix of the subversive kid show humour that defined the PeeWee character and the dark cartoon imagery that Burton was quickly becoming addicted to, PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985) seemed to capture the imagination of the theater going public. Often described as a live action cartoon, this was truly something new at the local Cineplex. It was a fairly big hit at the time, pulling in roughly 41 million dollars at the box office. That would be considered chump change now, but back in ’85 that was decent BO.

I enjoyed PeeWee’s Big Adventure. Certainly it wasn’t great art, but it knew firmly what it wanted to be, and had no pretensions to be anything else. It was more often than not a clever little road trip movie that poked gentle fun at our pop cultural sensibilities. Plus, it did so from a bit of a skewed perspective that made it all the more digestible. On top of that, it introduced Danny Elfman to the world of major motion picture orchestral scoring. Our Timmy was off to a pretty good start.

In 1988 Beetlejuice was released. Starring Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin and a young Winona Ryder, this film stays true to Burton’s pet theme of a misunderstood outsider, though in this one, everyone seems to be misunderstood outsiders. Davis and Baldwin are a young married couple that die at the beginning of the movie and come back as ghosts to haunt their former home. Ryder plays the daughter of the excellently cast Catherine O’Hara and Jeffery Jones, whose characters buy the house and immediately set about redecorating it. Davis and Baldwin are, of course, too nice to be effective ghosts, so they turn to help from an over the top Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice.

Apparently, as internet rumour would have it, this was supposed to have originally been a supernatural drama entitled The Maitlands (the surname of the Davis and Baldwin characters), but with the addition of Keaton to the production, and his insistence on a little more freedom with his character, Burton saw the potential and quickly changed it over to a dark comedy. This explanation rings a little hollow for me, however. First off, why would you hire Keaton to be in a supernatural drama in the late eighties in the first place (Clean and Sober was released after Beetlejuice), and secondly why hire Tim Burton as director of a dramatic piece when his biggest and only theatrical work up to that point had been PeeWee’s Big Adventure.

Regardless, Beetlejuice was a fun movie, if not a bit uneven. Again, Burton’s dark, quirky sensibility served him well. It didn’t ask too much of the viewer, other than a temporary suspension of belief. It pulled in an enviable 70 million at the Box Office, and spawned a Saturday morning animated show that in some respects was better than the actual movie. What more could you ask for?

Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Nine.

This was a controversial year between my comic book collector friends and myself. To them, it was the fulfillment of a promise. A serious film interpretation of a beloved comic book character. I agree with them on this point. Where we part company is on how successful the final product was. Up to that time, Batman was by the far the darkest and most adult adaptation of a comic book character yet (not counting Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat, naturally).

Batman was a huge Box Office success. One of the most successful movies of all time. With Michael Keaton in the title role, and a story seemingly tailor made for Tim Burton, how could it possibly go wrong? Well, in my opinion – Two names: Jon Peters and Jack Nicholson.

First up, Jack Nicholson. Truthfully, this has less to do with, on a personal level, my feelings for Nicholson as an actor than it does with his miscasting. Yes, I know, everyone raves about him as the Joker, and how great he was, and how perfect, etc. But, and here is where it gets tricky so stay with me if you can, I thought the movie was called Batman? Nicholson was way over the top here. He dominated the movie. There was no nuance. There was no room for anything else. Was Michael Keaton a good casting choice for the Batman? I couldn’t tell you based on this movie. Nicholson’s presence totally throws off the balance of the rest of the movie. It created an uneven and uncertain end result. I would much rather have seen Willem DaFoe in the Joker role.

Secondly, Jon Peters. I just have no respect for that guy. I wouldn’t know him from Adam if I met him on the street, but I have read interviews with him and read interviews of others commenting on him. These are the three things I know about him, though, 1) He was originally a hairdresser (no wonder Joel Schumacher ended up guiding the franchise after Burton left), 2) He was a close personal friend of Barbra Streisand’s and 3) He has no respect for anyone else’s opinion or ability unless he is getting a percentage. Therefore, as a matter of simple personal integrity and not a little bit of smugness, I strive to be contrary about anything with which he is involved.

Finally, Burton is a poor director of action scenes. Plainly and simply put. A movie about The Dark Knight of Gotham should have had a least one standout action scene. And I could have done without Kim Basinger, the movie sorely misses Sean Young who was originally cast in the role of Vicki Vale.

Batman pulled in 250 million dollars at the Box Office in the USA. So, in effect, what do I know?

Edward Scissorhands (1990), based upon a story Tim Burton wrote as a child, follows the struggles of a man-made boy whose creator (Vincent Price in a sweet performance) dies before completing him, leaving scissors in place of his hands. I don’t want to get into this one too much. I have many friends that feel very passionately about this movie…… in a positive kinda way. It stars Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest and a screen first, Anthony Michael Hall as a Jock. Suffice it to say that I thought it was fairly shallow and predictable, and the whole “kinky hair and a lot of dark clothing, and I am soooo misunderstood and all I want is to be loved” shtick from Burton was starting to grate a little bit.

It only did about 56 million dollars in domestic Box Office. This surprises me a bit, I thought it would have made much more based on the almost religious fervor with which people talk about it.

Now, we need to back up a little bit at this point and revisit my philosophical disagreement with those of the Comic Book clan. Most Comic aficionados with whom I am familiar think of Batman as the best of the bunch, with a curving decline in quality with each successive film. I, naturally, disagree and think that Batman Returns (1992), on a purely film making basis, to be the superior film. The problems that I had with the first movie; the unbalanced casting, the uneven tone and script, the lackluster action setpieces are not nearly as prevalent in the second movie. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is a perfect film, but I do think it is far better than the previous one. And I think it is on a whole other level when compared to the two subsequent episodes.

Even with a much larger cast that included strong performances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken and Michelle Pheiffer, Michael Keaton still had ample room to explore the psyche of our title character with a bit more depth. In fact the whole thing felt much more complete. All the characters had a solid and natural presence and progression within the whole of the story. However, the action was still lackluster.

Except when Michelle Pheiffer was on the screen.

I feel Burton showed quite a bit of maturity as an artist with this film, maturity that he hadn’t really shown before. I firmly believe it was a huge step for him and that it was more reflective of his true sensibilities and probably had more in common with Vincent, his early animated short, than any of his other films. It feels to me that it is his most personal film to date, Edward Scissorhands notwithstanding. He was calling his own shots.

Batman Returns brought in just under 163 million in the USA in its initial release.

I remember seeing Ed Wood (1994) on the first day of its release. Afterwards, my wife at the time and friends decided not to let me choose the movies anymore. I remember being very vocal in my support of the film, implying that the others were just culturally challenged for not appreciating the movie for the high art that it was. I also remember quite clearly feeling left cold by the movie. Feeling disappointingly underwhelmed. And I don’t know why. The performances were spot on if not a bit overly mannered. I just was never caught up in Ed’s struggle and vision.

And I should have been. Especially at that time in my life, having just finished directing an extremely low budget film a couple of years prior. It should have resonated with me, and it didn’t. I think it could be because the true soul of the story was with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Oscar winning performance). I never got caught up in Wood’s quest for cinematic expression, but I was heartbroken over Lugosi’s struggle with fading fame and drug addiction. I wanted to spend more time there.

Still, it is an excellent movie and should be seen. Burton is restrained here and subtle, a couple of firsts for him. See it with people you can get caught up in a discussion with afterward, though. Ed Wood grossed a paltry 6 million at the Box Office. I guess everyone spent all their money seeing Speed that year instead.

I would like to describe Mars Attacks (1996) simply as a Noble Failure. It was highly uneven, terribly hit or miss, much too long, awfully slow moving, with a story that was top heavy, and again, Burton is extremely poor with action. The pluses include a great project history, a challenging and subversive concept, an “A” list cast, creative and groundbreaking CGI effects and animation, great Martians and….. and…..

Still, the pluses don’t outweigh the negatives. Mars Attacks took in approximately 38 million in the theaters.

I saw Sleepy Hollow (1999) on my birthday with a female co-worker when it first came out. She was very cute. She hated it. I agreed with her publicly, but secretly I thought it was pretty close to perfect. Tonally it is extremely consistent from beginning to end. The production design and cinematography is beautiful. The story is strong and builds nicely. There are some awkward character transitions, but they are not too glaring and work within the framework of the story. Johnny Depp is much better here than he was in Edward Scissorhands, but that is mainly because he has a much meatier role in which to sink his teeth. Christina Ricci is a bit out of her depth, but she is game.

I think it worked well for Burton to come in on a screenplay that was already strong to begin with and to develop it a little bit more to accomodate his vision, but not to the point of raping it in order to put that “Made by Burton” stamp on it. I think the film industry is currently rife with that kind of attitude from Tier One directors and it is disheartening to say the least. I was happy to see him not succumb completely to that temptation. He did similarly on Ed Wood and from that we could assume that he seems to be at his strongest in these instances.

Now keep in mind that just because I say it was pretty close to perfect, that does not neccessarily mean it was my favorite Burton film. I still look at Batman Returns as the strongest of the lineup that he directed. But Sleepy Hollow is his most technically consistent and accomplished work as a director. Heck, my all time favorite movie is most probably She’s Having a Baby (1988) from John Hughes. Go figure. The contradiction between taste and style is a visceral, elusive thing. Ask John Waters, he might be able to explain it to you. Sleepy Hollow grossed 101 million dollars on its initial US run.

Compared to the original, Planet of the Apes (2001) was a pretty dumbed down movie. It had none of the smartness that earmarked the first one. Having said that, I must admit, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. There was a certain sense of good natured fun to it that showed it didn’t take itself too seriously. Was it great? No, not at all, but it wasn’t terrible, either. It was a lark.

The makeup, by Rick Baker, was outstanding. Tim Roth looked great as General Thade, but I don’t think he could have gotten much louder with his performance. Michael Clark Duncan was serviceable as Colonel Attar. Estella Warren was practically non-existent as Daena, the obligatory half-naked human girl with expensive lipstick and blush. Mark Wahlberg did not have enough charisma or heft to bring any sense of weight to the key human role of Captain Leo Davidson. And finally, Helena Bonham Carter was the best thing about the movie as the “human” rights activist, Ari.

The famed twist ending was interesting, but didn’t work for me on any level. My main problem with it is that it had nothing to do with the entire rest of the movie. It felt completely tacked on at the last minute. The “twist” ending in the original grew organically and naturally out the story that preceded it. It was a logical and pure extension of what we had already seen and understood of the situation. But I do not fault Burton for this, it seems that he was very much a hand for hire here. Planet of the Apes has taken in over 130 million dollars at the Box Office to date.

Tim Burton is a great visualist, but he is weak on character and story (a common enough sin in today’s Hollywood). His personal themes that he tends to revisit frequently are fairly shallow and overdone. He has a touch and is a wonderful talent, but he needs someone to say “no” to him, to refocus him on the elements of storytelling that are important.

I root for him though. Out of all the current crop of A List Directors, he is the one I want to succeed most. He has the most potential to knock one out of the park. His heart seems to be in the right place, he just needs someone to bring some discipline to the table. His visual and story sense works much better in animation. At times it is a bit alarming to think that the man that created Vincent is also the man that brought us Planet of the Apes, but I understand that it is a business first.

So, at this point in his career, looking back at all he has accomplished, I would have to give him a B-. He has excelled in many subjects but there are definitely areas that need improvement. He disappoints when he should shine, and he shines when he should be soft. He works well with others, he is polite when spoken to and relatively well behaved. He has a bright future as long as he doesn’t screw it up.

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