WRITTEN BY: CHRIS HALLAM. FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2017
From Batman to Beetlejuice and Big Fish to Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s unique movie combinations of fantasy, sentimentality and horror have illuminated our cinema screens for over thirty years now. But with nearly twenty full length films under his belt and Burton himself approaching his sixties, how long can the magic continue?
WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM: TRY SAYING HIS NAME THREE TIMES IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS (BASICALLY NOTHING)
Almost nothing about Tim Burton career makes any sense.
Consider: much of his appeal rests in part on the maverick oddball nature of his work. The release of a new Tim Burton film is an event, with many people eagerly making a point of seeing everything he does. He is hip in a way neither Disney or Pixar could never be.
Yet, In reality, his reputation as an outsider seems odd. He has never been an obscure or unpopular director. His films nearly always do very well at the box office and always have done. He is currently ranked seventh on the list of the biggest grossing directors in Hollywood. Indeed, partly thanks to his outlandish Edward Scissorhands-like appearance is probably more recognisable than any of the other six with the possible exceptions of Steven Spielberg and onetime Happy Days star Ron Howard.
The world isn’t supposed to be like this. Offbeat, funny looking directors with unhappy childhood memories might direct one or two cult classics but that’s usually about it. Burton has directed hit after hit after hit for years and years and years. He has directed a film more or less every other year since the mid-Eighties.
At a time in which Hollywood has often been often accused of lacking inspiration and originality, Burton has frequently demonstrated he has both in droves. Although it’s true, he usually doesn’t write his own screenplays (Edward Scissorhands being an exception), Burton has always drawn far and wide for his sources of inspiration. The visual look of his films is frequently remarkable with impressive visuals even on his worst films like Planet of the Apes (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Most of us will probably now feel we have our own preconceived notions of what to expect from a Tim Burton film. Yet really we have no idea what to expect. Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children (2016), for example is nothing like his previous film, Big Eyes (2014) nor is that like and Frankenweenie (2012) and so on. There is really no good trying to guess what he might do next. Although it might be worth placing a bet that Jonny Depp will be in it.
For all his success – his combined grosses have exceeded those of George Lucas, J.J. Abrams or any of the Harry Potter directors – there seems little logical about how Burton’s films have performed at the box office. Alice In Wonderland (2010) for example, is far from Burton’s best film but it is by some way his biggest grossing blockbuster. His Planet of the Apes (2001) is also one of Burton’s biggest grossing films but might actually be his worst. Other much better films such as Ed Wood (1995), meanwhile, came close to flopping entirely,
Another oddity is the lack of correlation between Burton’s critical success and Oscar recognition. Generally speaking, with the notable exceptions of Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Mars Attacks! all of Burton’s films have been well received by the critics, often overwhelmingly so. Yet not one Tim Burton film has ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Two of his films, The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) have received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, but that’s it. Even allowing for the Academy’s traditional antipathy towards sci-fi and fantasy (nearly all of Burton’s films could be defined as the latter), this oversight seems surprising.
In short, screenwriter William Goldman’s old adage that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” seems truer than ever when applied to the career of Tim Burton.
Burton’s feelings of being an outsider are not an act. Despite being born to apparently “hypernormal” parents in Burbank, California in 1958, he felt lonely and retreated into a fantasy world of his own imagination from an early age.
“When you don’t have many friends,” he later mused of his early life. “You’re at a distance from the rest of society, you’re kind of looking out of a window…But there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends”.
Burton later played homage to the B-movie horror movies of his youth in films like Ed Wood and Frankenweenie. Soon he was making as well as watching films. One such animation Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) attracted the attention of Disney.
Paul A. Woods has written that “though he has sometimes dumped derision on the Disney name (Burton) is also a child of Uncle Walt,” and it is certainly true that while often a frustrating period for him, his years at Disney producing short dark films like Vincent and the later remade Frankenweenie were crucial towards the evolution of the unique combination of sentimentality and gothic horror which became Burton’s trademark. That said, by the mid-Eighties, he had left Disney and was directing his first full length feature film.
British audiences have never entirely “got” Pee-wee Herman. A children’s character created and played by Paul Reubens, he was never popular in the UK, his status later overshadowed by Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult cinema where he was “enjoying” the film Nancy Nurse Turns Up The Heat. Reubens has since come back even recently resurrecting the Pee-wee character. Burton was generous to the disgraced Reubens even during his difficult period, giving him roles in Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
But all this was in the future. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was a far from inauspicious debut for Burton proving a critical hit and making an impressive $40 million on as budget of $7 million. But it would be Tim Burton’s next film which would see his distinctive style really coming to the fore for the first time.
Beetlejuice (1988) was an unusual film by any standard. For one thing, the two likeable young romantic leads (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed off in the first ten minutes, the star (Michael Keaton) has only eighteen minutes of screen time, for another. It is also contains a surprising number of moments of horror for a PG rated comedy. The waiting room scene, for example, features a scuba diver with his leg still down the throat of a shark and a chain smoker who appears to have burnt to as cinder after an accident while smoking in bed.
Beetlejuice was almost a horror film and occasionally it shows. It was also a glorious success and launched Burton further along an impressive directorial career which continues to this day.
Though none of his films are full blown horrors, this dark element is a regular feature of Burton’s work. Though sentimental, the title character of Edward Scissorhands (1991) certainly looks he should be a horror character and seems like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together by a creator played by Vincent Price. The casting of the horror legend (in fact, in his final role) is no coincidence, of course. The late Christopher Lee another horror iconic movie veteran also appeared in five Burton films. Sleepy Hollow (the first of Lee’s Burton appearances) based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the headless horseman is closer to being a horror than any of Burton’s other works, while the animations The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, directed by Henry Selick) and The Corpse Bride as well as the live action Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children all contain unsettling elements which expose Burton’s love of horror.
Appearing in nine of his films to date, Johnny Depp has become synonymous with Burton’s work. Though as a famously good looking film star, Depp has proven a good fit for Burton’s out of kilter world view, effectively becoming Robert De Niro (or, if you prefer) Leonardo DiCaprio to Tim Burton’s Martin Scorsese. Burton’s former partner Helena Bonham Carter has also been a regular collaborator appearing in seven of his films since the start of the 21st century.
If there was a point where Burton might have been expected to have “sold out” it was with Batman (1989). Having enjoyed early successes, one would have expected being given the reins to Warner Brothers’ massive superhero franchise would have crushed any independent spirit out of him, like hiring Orson Welles to direct Star Wars or perhaps more aptly hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. But instead Burton did what all the best directors do, making Batman a hit while clearly marking his own independent stamp on the end product. He also produced a film that was considerably darker than any superhero film Eighties cinema audiences were used to. In Batman Returns (1992) Burton produced a sequel, still darker, weirder and more Burton-esque than what had gone before.
WHEN BURTON GOES BAD
Every director has a few turkeys in their closet but in truth, Tim Burton has far fewer than most. Even where his films have gone down badly, the record is so mixed it’s hard to write them off completely as total flops.
In 1995, after a decade of spectacular directorial success, Burton experienced his biggest ever box office failure with his biopic of Ed Wood. Wood, played by Johnny Depp, was notoriously “the worst film director ever” behind such cinematic monstrosities as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton himself chose to take the experience as a salutary lesson: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success is a very thin one,” he said. “Who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”
But in truth, Ed Wood is a fine film and well-reviewed at the time. Martin Landau even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the has been horror legend Bela Lugosi, the only acting performance in a Burton film to ever receive one. Perhaps audiences were simply put off by it being in black and white.
“Hi Jack: loved you in Mars Attacks!” joked the late Robin Williams to Jack Nicholson at an award ceremony. This was funny, of course, because supposedly Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy was so awful, Burton’s first major flop (Ed Wood, had at least, been cheap to make) and surely a source of embarrassment to Nicholson who had taken two roles in it. At least, that’s the story.
In reality, Mars Attacks! (1996) is Burton’s most divisive film, sitting in odd comparison to the much duller but much more successful box office smash Independence Day which was released at about the same time and which it comes across almost as a direct spoof of, even though it isn’t. Speaking personally, I and the mostly student audience I saw it with in Aberystwyth laughed our heads off at it and many people love Mars Attacks! to this day. I would suspect it went down better in the UK than in the US. But lots more people seem not to and on reflection it is perhaps a bit of a mess. “Often what I think is funny, other people don’t find funny,” Burton admits, perhaps explaining why few of his other films have been pitched as full-blown comedies.
Less equivocation is needed in summarising Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tim Roth gives a good villainous (unrecognisable) performance. Most of the make-up is decent and Danny Elfman’s score is fine. But that’s it as far as good points go: the film is otherwise irredeemably horrendously dreadful. One wonders what the hell Burton was thinking.
It’s not actually just that the Planet of the Apes suffers by comparison with the 1968 version of the story. Even if you don’t like Franklin J. Schaffner’s earlier film (which despite it’s marvellous ending does rather go on a bit), Burton’s film is still awful, hampered by a weak lead performance (Mark Wahlberg), a botched and doomed attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape more attractive than the others (moral: apes are generally only attractive to other apes), a dreadful script and an ending which makes no bloody sense whatsoever. It is Burton’s worst film. Ten years later, Rupert Wyatt made the far superior reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) perhsaps rubbing salt into the wound. But against all the odds, The Apes of Roth proved a hit. Critically mauled, Burton’s film was nevertheless the ninth biggest movie at the box office of 2001.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2006) was another hit but many feel it is unbalanced by Johnny Depp’s overly sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka (a performance reportedly based on Michael Jackson). Comparing Willies can be a controversial game but most viewers seem to prefer the late Gene Wilder’s Wonka from the 1971 version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Alice In Wonderland (2010) is also something of a mess and generally overuses CGI, yet it too was a big hit: indeed Burton’s biggest hit to date.
Only one film in fact Dark Shadows (2012) based on an obscure US TV series of the Sixties and Seventies about a darkly gothic family, constitutes both a commercial and critical flop. With Burton having directed nearly twenty films to date his really isn’t a bad record.
And truth, be told, even Dark Shadows isn’t all that bad.
Ultimately, probably the worst that could be said of Tim Burton is that while he has undoubtedly produced an impressive overall body of work, it is harder to identify an individual movie of his which is universally revered as a truly great film. For what it’s worth at the time of writing, not one of Burton’s films ranks in IMDB’s 250 Top Rated Movies. This might also explain why none of his films have yet received any Best Picture nominations. It could also simply be that his films are too offbeat for the Academy.
This is to dwell on the negative, however. Tim Burton’s career has been a magical glorious success. Burton turns sixty next year and we can only hope he continues to direct with such aplomb as he approaches old age.
For let us picture the following: Beetlejuice smiling malevolently as Lydia (Winona Ryder) says his name a third time. The mournful look on the face of Edward Scissorhands. The young Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) looking up to Karl the giant (the late Matthew McGrory) in Big Fish. The Caped Crusader confronting the Joker. A Martian invader gleefully vaporising more victims. The macabre humour of Sweeney Todd.
The fact that there are simply too many good Tim Burton films to discuss here is testament to his brilliance in itself.
THE BURTON FACTOR
Which Tim Burton film is the most Burtonesque of them all? Watch as our unscientific survey settles the matter once and for all. And remember, the final score is based on how ‘Burtonesque’ the film is: not how good it is. So there!
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No. Summary: Generally ore of a Pee-wee Herman film than a Tim Burton one although some Burton trademarks are already in place. Burton Factor: 4.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Yes: Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Fairly. Summary: The distinctive blend of comedy and humour is already there. Burton Factor: 9.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson. Is it animated?: No. Musical? Well, aside from Prince. Funny?: A little. Scary?: Slightly. Summary: Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Tim retains his credentials even when going all blockbustery on us. Burton Factor: 8.
Edward Scissorhands (1991)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: Ish .Summary: The essence of Burton. He even looks a bit like him. Burton Factor: 10.
Batman Returns (1992)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton. Michael Gough is also in this and a few others. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito also return later. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny/Scary?: A bit of both. Summary: Batman + 10% added Burton. Burton Factor: 9.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Kinda. Summary: What’s this? The most Burton-esque film of them all and he didn’t even direct it! Burton Factor: 10.
Ed Wood (1994)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No, despite gothic elements. Summary: An enjoyable homage but none of the usual fantasy elements. Burton Factor: 6.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: DeVito and Nicholson return from Gotham, Sarah Jessica Parker. But most of the large cast are non-Burtonites. Is it animated?: Partly. Musical?: When I’m Calling You Oooo-oooo. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No Summary: A bit of an odd one even by Burton’s standards. Burton Factor: 6.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Michael Gough, Walken, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary: It seems odd that this is the only one with Christina Ricci in. It sort of feels like she should be in all of them. Burton Factor: 7.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Helena Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not intentionally. Scary?: No. Summary: More sci-fi than most Burton efforts. Also: RUBBISH. Burton Factor: 4.
Big Fish (2003)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Bonham Carter, Deep Roy, Danny De Vito. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not really. Scary?: No. Summary: Moderately Burtonesque. Burton Factor: 6.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Intended to be. Scary?: No. Summary: Ingredients: 50% Dahl. 50% Burton. Burton Factor: 7.
The Corpse Bride (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: A bit. Scary?: Creepy. Summary: A Nightmare Before Christmas One and a Half. Burton Factor: 8.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No, all Stephen Sondheim. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Gory. Summary: A good choice for Tim B. Burton Factor: 8.
Alice In Wonderland (2010)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. Is it animated?: Lots of CGI. Musical?: No. Funny?: A little. Scary?: No. Summary. Burton’s biggest hit. Curiouser and curiouser… Burton Factor: 8.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter in their fifth Burton film together in a row. Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: A bit. Summary: Burtonesque, certainly, although the formula seems less potent than usual. Burton Factor: 7.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes Are any Burton regulars in it?: Quite a few on voices including Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Eerie, yes Summary: Resurrected from the age of Burton past. Burton Factor: 8.
Big Eyes (2014)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: No. Summary/rating: With very little fantasy element at all, you might easily not notice who the director is. Burton Factor: 2.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary/rating: Burton fans will recognise the mixture of childhood fantasy and horror. Burton Factor: 7.
THE ELFMAN COMETH…
He is the Elfman, or rather Danny Elfman. Ten things you may not have known about Tim Burton’s favourite composer…
- Elfman has scored all but three of Tim Burton’s eighteen studio releases to date.
- The exceptions were: a) Sweeney Todd, which is based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. b) Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children, was scored by Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham as Elfman had a scheduling conflict due to scoring Alice Through The Looking Glass, James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s own Alice film. c) Ed Wood: Howard Shore scored this one as Elfman and Burton had briefly fallen out.
- Danny Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellingon in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also voiced Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride and the Oompa Lumpas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
- He used to be in a rock band called Oingo Boingo. In recent years, he has complained of hearing loss as a result. He is 63.
- He composed the iconic TV themes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
- He has composed loads of film scores for many other films too amongst them Nightbreed, the Men In Black and Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Oz The Great and the Powerful, The Girl On The Train and many many more.