How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Late-Period Tim Burton

Tim Burton
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

He tried for years to have it both ways and lost just about everyone, critically speaking. Dark Shadows and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, two comedies heavy on CGI and off-kilter humour, were released concurrently with Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, the responses to which were muted at best. But even the surfeit of choices and impulses available to peruse in Burton’s own late filmography goes some of the way toward explaining why his star and stock have fallen. Burton used to represent the dark and whimsical that no one else in America could get right. Briefly, it seemed like he alone spoke the language of the goth in mainstream cinema. Now you could watch on the one hand the kitschy Burton trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience or the cozy, crafty Burton who hides weighty ideas about death in cuddly narratives about true love and companionship. By the time he could do whatever he wanted (adapt his favourite TV show into a movie, remake an old short of his for millions of dollars), the need for his sensibility had shrunk. The films made money but now no one talks about them.

That’s the paradox of being ‘different’ – someone’s always going to make you look obsolete. But it’s not like Burton set out to make himself into a brand. The chasm between Batman Returns and Mars Attacks! couldn’t be wider; this was just who he wanted to be. But he’s stuck being Tim Burton, and Tim Burton movies are still some of the most dependable box-office draws in the world. Burton’s passions are now stuck like Houdini, in a straightjacket of the style people expect him to bring to each work, then a locked vault of other work with the same sensibility, and finally a shark tank of an unknowable international film market increasingly geared toward an infantilized version of the danger Burton’s films used to promise. Getting Burton out of his own head would be quite the magic trick. Big Eyes proved he had so lost faith in his own dramatic instincts that he poured gallons of Danny Elfman‘s score over every big emotional moment, just in case the recently dead couldn’t work out what they’re meant to feel. Was Burton the goth teenager still in there?

I think that tension is honestly why it is I’ve continued to hang in with Burton as he’s drifted away from himself over the years. He’s capable of snapping back into focus when it pleases him (Frankenweenie is one of his best films full stop, appearing out of nowhere as if Burton’s career as an animator had never been put on hold by his live action films) but there’s something approaching sport in looking for Burton in his later work. Big Eyes is meant to be a kind of legend to the map of his career but he was so nervous about repeating himself he all but cut himself out of it. Honorable in theory, deathly dull in practice. Alice In Wonderland, along with Avatar, was one of the first films to exist in a blue screen netherworld – except that Burton’s was fun, light and creative and had several performances that are more interesting than the self-conscious zaniness all around his heroine. The idea of Alice (Mia Wasikowska in the role that made her famous) slowly discovering she’s been in Underland before feels more personal to Burton now, as if he were attempting to describe what it felt like to look around the blockbuster landscape and see himself, unacknowledged, everywhere.

Burton had been cribbed by everything from the X-Men movies, Silent HillNight at the Museum, Eragon, the Harry Potter series, Christopher Nolan’s body of work, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hellboy, The Spiderwick Chronicles, the reboot of Sherlock Holmes, and Watchmen, to name just a dozen. It helps quite a bit that waiting for Alice are spectacularly strange performances from Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Sheen, Crispin Glover, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall, and Michael Gough in his final role. Burton populating a too-busy CGI landscape with his rep company and leaving it for the die-hards to sort out the voices is a pretty fine metaphor for the bulk of his late work. That Burton never forgot those people whose voices were so crucial to the development of his own is part of why he remains an admirable figure. Burton was always something of a curator and Alice in Wonderland, like Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow, one of the most important films of my own youth, had a litany of influences to share. They’re the sort of films that can spark a love affair with classic cinema and/or make you throw out your wardrobe and head to the thrift shop.  

That Gough and Lee both closed their careers out receiving paychecks from a kid who grew up watching their work is heartening, to say the least. Burton was trying to make cult fans out of a young kid who then might catch up with The Devil Rides Out or Horrors of the Black Museum. He wanted to plant seeds of curiosity in the minds of the young without making the work all about himself. Frankenweenie is likely the best example of this, which gives laces a heart-warming story all about loving monster movies with artifacts from a shared history of cult film that doesn’t interfere with the fable of the cute dog coming back to life. On the other hand, it’s difficult to enjoy Dark Shadows without doing most of the legwork on the movie’s behalf.

Dark Shadows
(L-r) BELLA HEATHCOTE as Victoria Winters, MICHELLE PFEIFFER as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Willie Loomis, JOHNNY DEPP as Barnabas Collins, CHLOË GRACE MORETZ as Carolyn Stoddard, JONNY LEE MILLER as Roger Collins, and GULLY McGRATH as David Collins in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ DARK SHADOWS, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

The script truncates hours of television and another movie into a new two hour film while also attempting to update pieces of it to appeal to a younger audience (the entirety of the laborious yet wafer-thin subplot involving Chloë Grace Moretz should have been excised, even if her sitting on a couch rolling her eyes is just about perfect as auto-critique). It’s a rickety mess but it’s loaded with unforgettable tableaux and performances. Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, and Michelle Pfeiffer are all marvelous in their parts, even if the plot’s less concerned with them than with Johnny Depp’s Jonathan Frid impersonation. And there’s also once more a lovely metaphor for the space Burton and his company occupy in culture – a dilapidated mansion everyone whispers about that’s now a refuge for eccentrics and former starlets gone to seed. Watching his films now is like walking into Collinwood Manor. If you fix it up you banish its charm, but if you leave it the same you invite decay.

Still, there are images that have never left me in Dark Shadows, including Depp and Eva Green tearing a room apart trying to have supernatural congress; Pfeiffer holding her lycanthropic child in her arms while her house burns all around her; Christopher Lee dressed a sea captain holding court in the back of a perfectly grim ocean-side tavern. I’m grateful for the sentences even if I scorn the novel.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was more successful and even more *about* Burton looking back at his career. His protagonists are a gaggle of magic children hunted by vicious demons. Asa Butterfield‘s hero has to lead them out of their own Collinwood manor, the school of the title to make peace with their differences and rejoin society, almost like a director deciding to make crowd-pleasing blockbusters rather than continue to please himself (if this piece is overly stuffed with metaphor, try watching a Burton film after 2005 and you’ll find them quite unavoidable, as macro text has replaced the visual nuance he was once justly revered for providing). And that’d be well enough but Burton genuinely seems to have re-discovered his love for the things he once dependably supplied. There are honest-to-god Claymation monsters in this one, conjured from the magic recesses of one angry child’s brain to combat dark forces (…see what I mean about metaphor).

Green returns with a vengeance as the eternally optimistic mentor to the young who can change into a bird whenever it pleases her. The teenaged hero’s love interest, played by Ella Purnell is the latest and one of the best iterations of the idealized wide-eyed Burtonian leading lady. You could draw a straight line from Winona Ryder and Lisa Marie to Purnell. And he’s found an almost too-perfect (wait for it) metaphor for young love in that Purnell’s character has no mass, she floats above the ground unless wearing weighted shoes. Butterfield literally spends most of the movie looking up to her, an ideal he thinks he’ll never reach, whose tether he holds to keep her on the ground.

After Charlie and Alice and especially Big Eyes, I had thought Burton was basically over doing anything that specific, and so my heart swelled to see him once again so careful in his construction of important but simple ideas. If I’d seen this at the same age at which I saw Sleepy Hollow, I’d have been equally intoxicated with its romantic subplot. Just when I imagined he was just going to be a shadow of his former self, Miss Peregrine shows a man slowly coming back into touch with himself. I can’t say if Dumbo will show a further step in the right direction or something less personal, but I walk in optimistic. Burton has it in him to be the director who once magnificently curdled his corner of the American film landscape into a wonderland of perfectly calibrated cynicism, bountiful kitschy creativity, and goth sexiness. He may come back and if he does…I’ll be there.

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Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist from Doylestown, PA. He is the creator of the long running series The Unloved at RogerEbert.com, and is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence of Sound, and Nylon Magazine.

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