Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hollywood's least creative thinker

One of the least surprising things I learned in the past year was that Tim Burton is filming his own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Starring -- you guessed it -- Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Of course he is.

You see, Mr. Burton may once have been considered one of Hollywood's most creative talents. But now he has to be considered one of its laziest, not to mention one of its most predictable.

Watching Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Saturday night was a pretty good reminder of that.

Disagree? Well, let's consider the man's career on the whole if we want to follow his dispiriting trend downward. Not only has nothing in his recent films sprung from his own mind, as he's gotten himself involved in an alarming number of adaptations of famous works originated by other people, but even when his source material is not directly apparent, he's busy alluding to his own previous works.

Without further comment, I shall begin.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985). So much for my whole "Tim Burton used to originate his own ideas" theory. His feature debut was the big-screen version of the beloved TV show starring a pre-scandal Paul Reubens. And though I probably saw this for the first time too recently (2005) to have "gotten it," it's among the favorite movies of some people whose opinions I respect.

Beetlejuice (1988). This is what I will always consider the consummate Tim Burton film -- that is, if I'm speaking nicely about the man. If I'm speaking ill, that honor might go to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and represent something entirely different about him. Anyway, this film established the "Tim Burton style" that would become our template for what to expect from him -- and ultimately, a creative crutch that would keep him from testing his own boundaries.

Batman (1989). All hail Tim Burton! Everyone loved the man when he brought the caped crusader to life in a way utterly free from the camp that had characterized his previous screen incarnations. (Unless you consider Jack Nicholson's glorious vamping to be "camp"). His dark and twisted Gotham City was what we wanted from Gotham City, and who knew the jesterly sprite from Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) could be so pensive and brooding?

Edward Scissorhands (1990). Another home run. This is what I consider Burton's best film. His first of an increasingly ridiculous number of collaborations with Depp was a deeply sensitive consideration of "otherness" in a pastel alternate-1950s universe full of sameness. Also, who knew Anthony Michael Hall could play a buff jerk? A masterpiece that manages to be whimsical and downbeat at the same time. What may be most impressive in terms of total responsibility for the creative vision was that Burton also served as a screenwriter on this film, the only such time he has done that, despite a few "screen story" credits, which is not the same thing.

Batman Returns (1992). Some considered this to be even better than the original Batman -- not me, but some. (I guess I was the only one who thought Michelle Pfeiffer was over the top in this, and not in a good way, like Nicholson was). It proved that Burton still had it, finding new life in familiar territory (which can be hard, but which has become his pattern), and it was the rare sequel that was pretty much as well received as the first movie. What's more, Burton had the good sense to get out of this series and let Joel Schumacher destroy it. Today's Tim Burton probably would not have done that.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). While Burton only produced this film, leaving the directing to Coraline director Henry Selick, this was as Tim Burton-y as any Tim Burton film out there (and definitely hearkens back to Beetlejuice). He also got credited for the screen story and the production design. While I don't love this film the way some devoted fans do, I recognize its singular creative vision. I found it a little too dark for children in spots -- Santa Claus on a torture rack? -- but I don't for a moment doubt its supreme historical significance.

Ed Wood (1994). This might be characterized as his most ambitious/mature film to date, as it dealt with a real historical figure who could not be totally molded to fictional whims. I don't have a real distinct memory of Ed Wood, but I remember it being a triumph, and of course it earned Martin Landau an Oscar.

James and the Giant Peach (1996). Producer for Selick again. I thought this movie was a mess, but I thought I should mention it because I mentioned The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Mars Attacks! (1996). Burton's first genuine love-it-or-hate-it film. I guess I can say I loved it, though I recognize this movie is majorly flawed. Still, those Martians were a wonderful creation -- ack ack ack ack! -- and the film was much more gruesomely violent (in a good, sometimes even chilling way) than I thought it would be. A gloriously tactile spoof of 1950s alien movies. But since it's a large, expensive, special effects-laden satire, it was never going to be everybody's cup of tea.

Sleepy Hollow (1999). Burton's starting to lose some people at this point, but not me. Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, this movie was all about the production design for me. I loved the powdered wigs, the quill pens, the sprays of arterial blood as heads were chopped off, and the entire look of the village of Sleepy Hollow. The story was a bit goofy, but I didn't care. You might say this was a preview of future failings in terms of story.

Planet of the Apes (2001). And Burton drops off a cliff. Okay, it wasn't that bad. But it was pretty bad. However, you could say that Burton kind of went outside his comfort zone with this one. Yeah, it's still Burton-y material, but there's a serious lack of gothic stylings on a planet of apes -- no moldering mansions, no obvious visual components to accompany perpetual collaborator Danny Elfman's score, no characters with the skin color of white pancake makeup. Maybe it was the inclusion of Mark Wahlberg that made it feel so little like the Burton we'd seen before, which at this point was still a quality we desired from his films. Another disturbing note is that this is his second straight update of previously created material. I see a trend forming.

Big Fish (2003). And the good Burton is back again. Though I willingly acknowledge that it could just have been me hanging on with him longer than I should have. While I had a very good first impression of this film -- and will admit to getting teary at the end -- I have a sense looking back on it that it probably emotionally manipulated me. I'm not immune to emotional manipulation. Still, who better to interpret the tall tales of the world's most embellishing storyteller -- or is he? -- than Burton? You are free to disagree on this one.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Isn't it amazing how quickly someone becomes a total hack? I recognize there are disagreements out there. But this was now Burton's third remake in his last four films, and what a garish, ugly and dispiriting remake it was. During the first 20 minutes, when we were introduced to yet another moldering city, I at least thought it was a handsome enough moldering city, and I had high hopes. But once foot was set inside the chocolate factory, this movie went completely off the rails. Everything that was good about the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was forcibly driven out and beaten into some kind of twisted obscenity. Depp is terrible as the freakish, purple-suited Wonka, not the gleeful (but still mildly twisted) Gene Wilder, but some kind of inscrutable mental patient divorced from space and time. If you like this film, you might argue that Burton was intent on extracting the true darkness that's always been present in this story. But if you are attracted to the lightness and charm of the original tale, you will find it nowhere here. And the songs ... such woeful replacements for the originals we know and love.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005). And here vanity takes over a bit. Couldn't it have just been called Corpse Bride? There are things to like in this film, the third stop-motion animation movie he's had a hand in. For one, I was glad to see him embrace the stylings of an artist who has clearly inspired him throughout his career -- Edward Gorey. But at its core, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is like a warmed-over mix tape (forgive the mixed metaphor) of all his previous works, most notably Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It probably succeeds on some basic level, but it's as forgettable as Elfman's unhummable songs. It seems strange to level such a charge against a film that obviously required so much work by so many people, but this film is downright lazy.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Drudgery. Pure drudgery. So far has Burton retreated inside his world of gloom that there's only one sequence of pure daylight in this entire film. Whereas the sets might have stood out in one of his previous efforts, here they are so poorly differentiated from each other that they blend into the murky grayness of the background. It's Burton embracing his R side again with buckets of blood and an intentional atmosphere of pervasive sorrow. But is it anything other than that? The plot is utterly without interesting developments, and the motivations of key characters are nothing short of bizarre. What's worse, the best songs from Stephen Sondheim's original musical were not even included. I'm not one to quibble with the way an adaptation differs from its source, but I guess I did have high expectations for this based on having seen a filmed version of the Broadway musical, which featured Angela Lansbury in the role of Mrs. Lovett, here played by none other than wife and constant collaborator Helena Bonham Carter. Those expectations were utterly dashed. It's better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's about all I can say for it.

Alice in Wonderland (2010). It's anybody's guess. But really, do you have high hopes?

You might argue that my analysis of Burton's body of work is mostly complimentary, and only on a few films did I really unleash my vitriol. And you'd be right. After all, I felt enthusiastically about a film of his that was released only six years ago. Could it be just a losing streak? Could it be possible that Tim Burton still has a soul?

I don't think so. Yet I have seen every single film he's directed. Aren't many directors I can say that about, but I can say it about him. I keep going. It's like I have the same problem with him that I have with M. Night Shyamalan. I know it won't be good, but I still keep going.

Yet I suspect that my opinion of Mr. Burton is not shared by the general public, or by his peers. After all, wasn't Johnny Depp nominated for an Oscar for Sweeney Todd? And didn't Sweeney Todd actually win the Oscar for best art direction? I could argue that it was the worst art direction in any Burton film. The damn thing actually won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, I now see. Eighty-six percent of critics supposedly gave it a favorable review, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe it just means I don't know what I'm talking about.

But I think there are those of you out there who share my pain. Who see a guy who once really captured our imaginations, and now just captures our $12 based on his name recognition.

I'm a guy who loves versatility. One of the reasons I was so blown away by The Wrestler was that it was so different from Darren Aronofsky's previous film, the impenetrable and utterly fantastical The Fountain. You might say Aronofsky couldn't have done more of a 180 in terms of subject matter and fidelity to realism. That's the making of an interesting artist. That's an oeuvre I want to watch.

But why should Burton change his ways if we -- the royal we -- keep throwing awards his way?

For many years, Burton created monsters. And now we've created one in him.

I know I've already taken up altogether too much of your time, but just for fun ...

The Top Ten Films Tim Burton Should Have Directed, But Didn't:

10. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
9. Frankenstein (1994)
8. The Crow (1994)
7. Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
6. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
5. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
3. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
2. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
1. From Hell (2001)

It occurs to me -- how could he never have directed a vampire movie?

I can't wait for Tim Burton's Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2012.


Lord Vader said...

I couldn't agree more with your views on Tim Burton - the best being 'Edward Scissorhands' and 'Ed Wood'. But adaptations of 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' are the most depressingly predictable, market research friendly matches of director and material imaginable.

Don Handsome said...

But aren’t you also looking forward to 2022's 'Tim Burton's The Passion of The Christ' staring Johnny Depp as a pale and leather-clad Jesus, Helena Bonham Carter as a mumbling and vaguely drug-addled Mary Magdalene, and Paul Reubens as the Penguin's father?

Vancetastic said...

Yes. Yes I am.