CALVIN LAW reviews the varied works of director Tim Burton.
Tim Burton is one of the most enigmatic yet divisive directors working today, largely due to the seemingly paradoxical nature of his directorial vision. It does not flourish within studio mandated constraints in the way that, say, Steven Spielberg can fuse his ideas with box-office appeal. It is telling that one of his most critically acclaimed films, Ed Wood, was a complete box-office failure. Yet when his talents are without restraints, the derivative nature of his vision can become overbearing and mutes any potential impact. Burton’s films work best within the confined vision of what I can only term (in the same way as Lynchian and Hitchcockian can be applied) Burton-esque.
Burton’s distinctive mark as a director can already be seen in his early shorts. The implementation of horror icons like Vincent Price, who narrates Vincent, and the Frankenstein homages in Frankenweenie, set a template for Burton’s future works: a Gothic sense of place and time merged with modernity, and a strong edge of dark humour. This very personal style was realised in Beetlejuice. An immense box-office success on a relatively low budget, Beetlejuice stars Michael Keaton playing a roguish, uncouth ghoul, who seamlessly blends black humour and fantasy.
It’s this personal touch which was somewhat lost in the next stage of Burton’s career. Directing the first two Batman films made Burton quite the box-office guarantee. However, his vision was compromised by the studio-mandated need to appeal to a broad audience, thus removing much of the aforementioned intimate feel that defines his best work. The Batman films are grand but also oddly hollow in many regards; Burton’s style and the blockbuster qualities of the film seem to effectively cancel each other out into an anti-climax. On the other hand Edward Scissorhands, which draws on memories from Burton’s own childhood, tells a simple fairy tale on a local scale, and manages to make subtle, emotionally poignant strokes that many audiences can identify with. The visual style, Danny Elfman’s wonderful score, storyline and Johnny Depp’s much celebrated performance have a heart to them that is infused by Burton’s work as a director.
Depp and Burton continued to make films, with Ed Wood being one of the most notable ventures both for its critical acclaim and box-office failure. Despite garnering wins for both Martin Landau’s magnificent performance as Bela Lugosi, and the marvellous makeup team, Burton seemed averse, or at least hesitant, to taking obvious risks after this financially disappointing venture. From that point onwards Burton has played it much safer, with possible exceptions of Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directing in a style that is almost a caricature of the aesthetic that made his name.
There have been entertaining films like Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but they feel like a repetitive imitation of Burton’s earlier dark comedy works. Burton takes his Gothic style and blackness up several notches in these films, but these tropes no longer have the power to surprise audiences and therefore lack the spark that defined the likes of Beetlejuice. On the opposite side of the spectrum he’s dabbled in ‘Oscar bait’ like Big Eyes, which feels tonally disjointed as a biography that can’t seem to decide whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Similarly, big budget Hollywood Disney films like Alice in Wonderland, for all its striking visuals, feels like a director taking some Tim Burton motifs and scattering them across the Lewis Carroll source material. Then there’s Dark Shadows, of which the less said, the better.
As demonstrated by Big Fish, Burton still possesses the raw talent that has earned his huge and widespread acclaim. This film demanded more restraint, forcing Burton to go out of his comfort zone with more heartfelt, ‘adult’ family scenes. It is notable that it was under these conditions that he achieved a perfect blend of style and heart. One can only hope Burton’s ventures with film in the future focus more on the intimate details and idiosyncrasies of his style and do not get stuck in a trap of repeating once innovative material.