Wednesday, March 27, 2019

In Laman's Terms: The Best Late Period Tim Burton Movies Emphasize What's Missing From His Weakest Recent Movies

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Tim Burton kicked off his directorial career in style at the tail end of the 1980s. His debut movie, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, was an acclaimed sleeper hit while Beetlejuice took an off-the-wall horror comedy premise and turned it into the tenth biggest movie of 1988. Of course, both of those features were nothing compared to the gargantuan success Burton had on his third film, Batman, which became a pop culture phenomenon in the summer of 1989 and took in just over $251 million domestically alone. Burton's films weren't just moneymakers, they were critically well-received too, particularly in regards to just how distinctive they were. Burton's movies had macabre sensibilities ingrained into their humor and characters while the production design of his films were loopy, creative and twisted.

These were not factors abundant in mainstream American cinema at the time and they made Tim Burton stand out as something special. Three decades after those films came out, though, Tim Burton's career is in a different place. He certainly hasn't vanished to direct-to-video land like fellow late 1980's hit-maker Rob Reiner has and his movies haven't hit the box office lows of another filmmaker who took off like a rocket in the 1980s, Robert Zemeckis. But certainly, his 21st-century works have not been as widely acclaimed nor as creatively distinct as his earliest works. For a number of years, the broad perception of modern-day Tim Burton has been that he's the director whose earliest works were based on original concepts like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands while he now mostly just remakes classic movies, TV shows or short films by way of mechanically assembling them into a shape vaguely resembling a Tim Burton movie.

That a broad viewpoint I more or less agree with and on the eve of the release of Burton's newest directorial effort Dumbo, yet another instance of Burton helming a remake, I feel like it's necessary to take a more nuanced look at this earlier perception and see if there's any truth to it. Now, this assessment of the current state of Burton's career notes how heavily he relies on adapting pre-existing material, an inarguable point. In fairness to Burton though, adapting pre-existing material isn't just something he's done before, it's how he kicked off his career as a director. The first feature film starring Pee-Wee Herman was also Burton's first outing motion picture while he also directed two Batman movies that ended up being a precursor to the modern-day superhero movie boon. To boot, two of his best 21st-century movies, Big Fish and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, are based on pre-existing source material.

By the same token, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Dark Shadows, two of the worst Burton movies, show that a Tim Burton movie based on pre-existing source material isn't inherently a good thing but it's also clear from some of his best efforts that it's also not inherently a recipe for disaster. It also must be said that I have found Burton's earliest works are not (GASP!) perfect in and of themselves. Most of them are better than a number of his worst modern efforts, certainly, and I love Edward Scissorhands, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Ed Wood dearly, but I'll also admit that Beetlejuice has its fair share of gags that don't work while I've always found his two Batman movies to be less than the sum of their frequently fascinating parts. Such critiques feel as appropriate for the likes of Batman Returns and Beetlejuice as they do for the likes of modern Burton fare like Frankenweenie & Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Perhaps then it is not as easy to just divide Burton's career as a filmmaker into two clearly divided halves like I have done in the past. Certain recurring faults in Burton's movies are evident in his earlier works just as a number of his recent directorial efforts reinforce that Burton hasn't lost his touch as a filmmaker. Anyone's artistic career is bound to be more complex than what my original clear-cut assessment described and Tim Burton's work as a director is no different. That being said, there are still some recurring concerning creative decisions in Burton's 21st-century output that bear noticing. Most notably, the worst of Burton's recent works feel totally phoned-in, the opposite of the vibrant creativity that informed even the flaws of his earliest films.

In something like Batman Returns, for example, a scene or visual choice I personally didn't like still left me appreciating the admirable creative boldness that informed that scene or visual choice. By contrast, Burton's takes on Planet of the Apes or Alice in Wonderland feel devoid of an intrepid artistic spirit. Both of these films just lifelessly toss out lines of dialogue familiar to people who have consumed past incarnations of these properties while realizing these characters and their world in paint-by-numbers visual approaches. The worst of Burton's 21st-century movies are hamstrung by a lack of creativity that adheres to much to the past whereas the best of Burton's work, both past and present, boldly creates something wholly new.

Take Edward Scissorhands, a creation that takes cues from both Universal monsters and fairy tales and inhabits a story that truly feels one-of-a-kind. Ditto for Big Fish, a poignant 2003 story about a son coming to terms with his father's past that involves tall tales about fairy tale & fantasy staples like giants or werewolves. There's no shortage of creativity in these features whereas the only really new element in his wretched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake is a tired backstory for Willy Wonka that reduces the amount of fun in the movie rather than enhance it. Even the pair of stop-motion animated movies he's directed in the 21st century, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, feel merely like attempts to recapture the lightning in a bottle success of The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he did not, for the record, direct, Harry Selick did) more than anything else, resulting in two films that left me more cold than entertained.

Burton's best works tend to flourish when they embrace the weird and unexpected, and unfortunately, a large share of his most recent directorial efforts suffer from a lack of imagination in that department. There's just so little in the way of truly unexpected elements in much of his recent work, which may be why Sweeney Todd stands heads and shoulders above most of his post-2003 directorial efforts. It turns out Tim Burton and musicals make for a great pairing. Burton's love for the oddball land strange means he doesn't shy away from making a full-on musical like so many modern musical film directors do. Meanwhile, the chance to see Burton do his most violently gruesome work ever (Sweeney Todd is only one of three R-rated films Burton has ever gotten to direct) as a filmmaker is a macabre treat. Hopefully, more future Burton directorial efforts take a cue from this motion picture and the devotion to crafting something truly strange & memorable that the best Tim Burton movies always carry.

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