Tim Burton used to make his own fairy tales. Now he has resigned to recycling the fables of others.
Granted the word visionary still applies when speaking about Burton. His work has a defined look and feel that warrants the word Burtonesque: The askew angles and bright, vivid use of color. Also the man likes a straight line in his scenery about as much as Dr. Seuss did. Since the mid-eighties with the release of his first film, the quirky “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” Burton has been seen as an important American Director, a unique voice that has entertained millions.
“Pee Wee” begat “Beetlejuice,” possibly the most insane and vulgar “family film” every released. Michael Keaton is a horny demon that spends the movie groping Geena Davis while trying to get inside Winona Ryder’s under aged pants. There is a moment where Beetlejuice is distracted by a whorehouse filled with dead prostitutes and the “f” word is used as Beetlejuice tugs on his crotch (“Nice fucking model!”). But damn, the movie is fantastic; a modern classic that is wholly original. At first, originality was never lacking in a Burton film.
Then the auteur took his magic touch and invented the modern superhero movie with “Batman”. Again, he gets away with presenting a bizarre and twisted tale that somehow passes as amusement for the masses. With “Batman Returns” we have a big budget, tent-pole Summer Movie with a climax that takes place in the sewer and features a herd of penguins with missiles strapped to them. Like “Beetlejuice,” that movie also features an obscene amount of sexuality as Danny DeVito as the vile villain, The Penguin, tosses about 83 sexual innuendos in the direction of the incredibly sexy Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer in a skin tight, bondage outfit).
“Edward Scissorhands” is a modern fairytale that is Burton’s purest vision. The film established Johnny Depp as movie star with a peculiar taste that fit perfect with the director. From the cookie cutter, pastel version of suburbia to the dark, foreboding castle on the hill that is the home to our Edward, this is Tim Burton’s world. Depp even shared the same straggly hair that Burton donned at the time. “Nightmare Before Christmas” is another example of original storytelling that provided a glimpse into the mind of the filmmaker.
Then Burton took a serious turn and gave us the smart and sentimental bio-pic “Ed Wood” that explored the life of the Hollywood outcast who made some of the worst films in cinema history (“Plan 9 from Outer Space,” “Glen or Glenda”). It’s obvious that Burton viewed himself as an outcast even though he was constantly creating popular films that were embraced by the mainstream. A common theme in these early films was not fitting in, not being understood.
Now a part of the machine, with his films grossing hundreds of millions of dollars and starring mega stars like Jack Nicholson, he lost his sense of being out of place. Tim Burton effectively lost his main inspiration. With nothing personal to say any longer, he turned his attention on regurgitating and remaking instead of creating and crafting.
Burton has become the modern day Walt Disney, putting his spin exclusively on existing works. Disney never made an original film, he simply retold the classics. “Sleepy Hollow” and “Alice in Wonderland” received distilled versions from both men. Nearly every film by Burton since 1996 has been based on another source material. The horrible “Planet of the Apes” was easily the most lifeless while his spin on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was an obvious match. “Mars Attacks” got its inspiration from a series of trading cards while “Sweeney Todd” was based on a hit musical. There was “Big Fish” which was culled from a novel and represents Burton’s most mature work. This sort of film would have been an exciting path to continue his career down but instead he has chose to become the Great Remaker.
His only truly original film during this period was “Corpse Bride”, a stop motion animation family film that pales in comparison to its companion piece, “Nightmare Before Christmas”.
And what is on the horizon for the Great American Filmmaker? First we have “Dark Shadows,” his take on the Gothic soap opera from the 70s, followed by a remake of his own early short film, “Frankenweenie”- this time in stop motion!! The latter represents a new milestone as Burton has begun picking from his own filmography for projects.
It’s sad that Tim Burton’s career has devolved into this repetitive cycle of retreads. Even sadder still is that his films still make LOADS of money, as we have become an audience complacent with being fed the same ideas and stories time and again. If anything, Burton represents what has become commonplace in our entertainment culture. We are stuck on repeat.