Saturday, March 2, 2013

Director Retrospective: Tim Burton Part 1

It I really do like Tim Burton. I’m not kidding, I do. Lately it’s been more theoretical liking than practical liking, as a lot of his more recent films haven’t been, well let’s call it up to snuff. Actually, I’m under no obligation to be diplomatic, so let’s been honest: a lot of his more recent films have been straight up fucking terrible.

But I hold out hope, because I like a lot of movies he’s directed, and a few of them (Ed Wood in particular) are staples of my favorite movies of all time lists. But even as his quality begins to slide downwards, I’m grateful he exists; A mainstream director with such a unique and recognizable style, visual scheme and preference for certain themes. Plus I don’t think there’s another mainstream director with such a fascination with dark themes and imagery. And it’ll be easier to get through this one than the Shyamalan one (I own more of his movies on DVD…which is more than zero, but hush).

So in order to figure out what’s wrong with Tim Burton and if he can be saved, we have to go back and figure out what made him great in the first place. Oh and so you know, as always this is restricted to movies he directed, so Nightmare Before Christmas will not be appearing. So, let’s delve into the career of the ultimate modern master of the macabre, Tim Burton.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure:

…Wait what?

Yeah. The big random question mark at the very beginning of Burton’s directorial career. An adaptation of the then popular Pee-Wee Herman Show (which would later be spun off into the more child aimed Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), the film was a solid sized hit in its day and received good reviews, but today it’s mostly forgotten, a footnote in the career of someone who moved on to bigger things. What happened?

Well there’s no way to be tactful about this, so let’s just dive right in shall we? In 1991, during a sabbatical from Playhouse, Paul Reuben (the actor who portrayed Pee-Wee) was arrested for indecent exposure, having been found in a porno theater. And regardless of all other things, this event has completely erased and rewritten his entire legacy. Mention his name, or the name of his character, and this is the first and in many cases, only thing people know about him. Does he deserve better? I have no idea, I never watched Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. All I know about it (aside from the aforementioned) is that the guy who played Blackula played the King of Cartoons. But that’s just an explanation for how this movie got forgotten, how is the movie on it’s own?

It’s alright. Solid first movie from Burton. The plot is pretty straightforward (someone has taken Pee-Wee’s bike and he goes to get it back (which is, weirdly enough, pretty close to the plot summary of a Tony Jaa movie…any one of them really). The movie is decently clever, frequently funny and overall pretty harmless. It doesn’t really have much of Burton’s signature style around it (aside from a couple of sequences that are pretty weird, and feel a bit out of place, frankly). It also didn’t leave a whole ton of impression on me, frankly. I mean, I’m writing this about 3 hours after having finished watching the movie and I can’t remember a single thing about it (aside from that…one sequence…with the truck driver). Not necessarily a strike against it, as it’s not really aimed at me, but not really a recommendation either.

Regardless, the film was a pretty big hit, and was well received by critics. Burton was certain to get more work. Which leads us, of course, to his next film.


Beetlejuice is frequently cited as one of Burton’s best films, a title I’m not 100 percent certain it deserves. Oh it’s really good, to be sure, but I’m not certain it’s one of his best (I’ll establish what I think his best movies are at the end of this whole thing). As it stands, it’s one of Burton’s only attempts at a direct comedy, and it’s certainly successful at that.

As for the plot? Well the title character…doesn’t show up until the movie is nearly over. It always weirded me out that the movie is named after a character who’s basically an extended cameo, but he’s played by Michael Keaton and he was a big box office draw at the time. So the main plot, about a family who dies and has to remain in their house for 125 years, so they try to scare off the new people living in their house. Beetlejuice is a ghost they hire to help scare off the family, who doesn’t appear until something like the last half hour.

What I like about this, in terms of Burton’s larger career, is that it’s the first real film of his to have his focus on the gothic and weird come full in the forefront. Another reason why I think Beetlejuice is the title of the movie is when he’s onscreen, he takes up the entire goddamn screen. A lot of the movie is really weird, with an odd tone and some extremely dark and weird moments. I’m actually not entirely sure who this movie is aimed at. Most of the movie seems to be a kid aimed comedy, what with the goth chick bonding with the ghost family and a lot of the humor, but there are several sequences, especially with the title character, that are highly adult themed. Whatever though, the movie is hysterically funny when it wants to be, and a solidly made and well written/acted movie on top of that.

Whatever else it is, Beetlejuice was a massive hit and quite critically well received as well, and remains one of his more fondly remembered movies to this day. So more work was obviously on the way for Burton. But what happened next would not only change his career, but Hollywood itself, forever.


The degree to which Tim Burton’s Batman has influenced the modern superhero genre cannot be overstated. It is, essentially, the first superhero movie. Yes, I know Superman predated Batman but Superman is a cultural icon, on the level of Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, Batman was someone completely new. So much of the way superhero films are produced, cast, written, directed, shot, designed, even marketed are based so much on this film. I can honestly say that, without this film, the modern superhero film probably wouldn’t exist.

With all that said, it’s interesting to watch this film as an adult and realize that there are large sections of this film that just do not work. Don’t get me wrong, I still like it a lot. But (and I’m skipping the plot recap, it’s essentially pointless) there are a lot of chunks that don’t gel. For example, while Michael Keaton is a solid choice for Bruce Wayne, he’s completely incapable of playing Batman. And while I like that the Joker’s big plan is essentially a lengthy takedown of the makeup industry, it doesn’t seem to really go anywhere.

There are other issues with the movie, and I kind of wish I felt like doing a full length reviews of these movies, since this movie is kind of fascinating in both the ways it does and doesn’t work. But since I’m summarizing, the biggest other issues with the film is the weirdly awkward structure and the fact that Batman is basically a passive player in his own movie (and is getting vastly overshadowed by the villain, but that’s a problem with the other movies and the franchise as a whole frankly). And I’m sorry, but the Joker killing Batman’s parents is goddamned stupid

But while the stuff that doesn’t work only kind of doesn’t work, the stuff that works REALLY works. The action sequences are kickass, the visual style is unique and frankly gorgeous. Jack Nicholson’s performance, while basically a variation on his typical persona, is a huge treat to watch throughout. There is a reason, beyond the massive impact it had on the culture, that this movie is seared into all of our memories.

While Batman had mixed critical reaction, it’s today considered a classic of the action and superhero genre. And it was, it goes without saying, a HUGE hit, grossing more than Superman and Superman II combined on a budget lower than either of them. It remains, percentage wise, one of Burton’s biggest hits, and turned him from a reliable oddball to a blockbuster director overnight. Burton now had the clout to get the movies he wanted to make greenlit and to get them made his way.

Edward Scissorhands

Scissorhands is, in many ways, the definitive ‘Tim Burton’ movie and was, in many ways, an important movie in his career. It wasn’t necessarily an exceptionally important movie in the history of movies overall, except for the last appearance of the great Vincent Price (and yes, I know The Thief and the Cobbler came out a little later, but he recorded that years earlier) and the first team up of legendary BFFs, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. But by my estimation, it’s the first film where Burton’s favored visuals and themes came to the forefront, and in my opinion it’s his first truly great film.

The plot is contained handily in the title. A man named Edward is founding living alone in a castle, but being the product of mad science (courtesy a cameo from that lord of mad science, Vincent Price) and he has a series of blades where his hands should be. This causes all the problems you might expect, even as he begins to fall for the teenage daughter of the woman who found him.

As I said, this is easily one of Burton’s best films and it does so by being something a lot of his films definitely aren’t: Subtle. Subtlety isn’t always a good idea for Burton (indeed, some of his best movies are incredibly unsubtle) but here it works. Depp is giving one of the better performances of his career, but his performance is quiet and understated, far from the scenery chewing that he’d do later in his career. Burton’s themes of parental (especially paternal) abandonment and feeling like an outsider are there, but they’re played down enough that they don’t overwhelm the plot the way they do in later films. It’s also incredibly directed, solidly written, especially since Burton’s films often have weak scripts, and while the visual design is limited to the suburbia, the castle where Edward is found is beautifully designed. There are probably some minor flaws (mostly in the painfully one note bad guy), but none of them really hurt the film in any major way. The film, it’s tone and it’s style, flow incredibly well, making it work better than a lot of his other films.

The film was incredibly well received and is today considered some of Burtons’ best work. It was also a solid sized hit, especially given its comparatively small budget. Burton’s golden years seemed just around the corner. And Burton’s golden years were going to be…weird. We’ll talk about them next time.

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