Tim Burton: American English

If you asked me when I was 12 who my favourite director was then I would immediately answer ‘Tim Burton’. I don’t know what the first Tim Burton film I saw was for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been Beetlejuice. I was intrigued by the cover art and managed to convince my local video shop to phone my father who told them it was okay for me to rent out the 15 certificate film. From Beetlejuice I fell in love with Edward Scissorhands, both ‘Batman’ films (Batman Returns being the first 15 certificate I saw at the cinema) and there was also Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and a video recorded preview of (Burton written/Henry Selick directed) A Nightmare Before Christmas from Barry Norman’s ‘Film’ programme that I must have watched a million times over.

My love for Tim Burton continued onwards, all the way into the new millennium until something happened.

Planet Of The Apes was it’s name, a huge studio picture, a remake of all things, one that seemed to have none of the hallmarks one really associates with Tim Burton, not an ounce of the style and humour that filled his earlier films, it just felt like a rather tepid Hollywood summer release. Burton’s take on the twist ending saw Mark Wahlberg’s astronaut travel back to Earth only to find Tim Roth’s villainous monkey General Thade had beat him to it and America was now populated by monkey men.

It was shortly after this that Burton moved to England and married Helena Bonham Carter.

Burton’s output since ‘Apes’ has been disappointing at best, and I think I have finally figured out why.

In the early days of Burton’s career he was a refreshing voice in American cinema, he approached traditional Americana from a skewed outsider point of view. His (and Paul Reubens’) take on the tourist traps of modern U.S.A. was gloriously perverse in warped children’s flick Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, from truckers to movie lots, diners to a gloriously dim-witted and patronising tour of the Alama there is a delicious streak of satire running through this lunatic odyssey. It was an assured debut from the former Disney animator who had suffered at having all his ideas nixed by the House of Mouse, bar one Edgar Allan Poe inspired animation called Vincent and an off-kilter live-action short called Frankenweenie. It was clear that Burton’s sensibilities were of a dark ilk, and most definitely influenced by the macabre and British Hammer Horror.

Beetlejuice approached the modern American yuppie displacing them into the sticks and throwing the undead into the mix, it was a sleeper hit and truly asserted Burton’s status as a wildly imaginative director. It also showcased a unique and smart sense of humour quite uncommon in American cinema, something that suggests – to me – that Burton’s outsider perspective was, in many ways, born of England and English storytelling.

Whilst Burton was an American film-maker he made his finest work and each new film seemed to be more successful than the last, this ultimately must have contributed to his decision to move away from Burbank (his hometown in the heart of Los Angeles) and relocate to England. His first film post-move was Big Fish, ironically set in middle-America yet starring an array of Brits (Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Albert Finney); it was at odds with itself, and for once Burton’s perspective on America lacked the real charm and imagination of previous efforts, feeling more like a new director mimicking Burton’s style and coming up short.

Following this Burton has clung to Johnny Depp delivering the truly awful Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was sits uneasy, feeling unnatural and plastic. It is a baffling result as the smart, dark, grotesque words of Roald Dahl seemed like the perfect fit for pre-England Burton. Depp returned (with Bonham Carter again) for Sweeney Todd, taking another well known English tale and this time a musical. Whilst Burton managed to recapture some of his visual flair he could do little to save the musical’s own flaws and terrible sense of pacing, and, quite frankly, the look of Depp’s Todd is like a bad Tim Burton inspired Halloween costume.

Now we have Burton, Depp and Bonham Carter working together again and adapting another well known English tale in the shape of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Once more we have a leaked shot of Johnny Depp in costume and the glittery, Bowie-like image of Depp’s Mad Hatter does not fill me with any confidence. Yet Burton’s films continue to be hugely successful, the merchandising seems to have quantum leaped in recent years with the Emo community suddenly sporting all manner of The Nightmare Before Christmas inspired products. I cannot see things changing, which is a shame, as I feel Burton needs to return an original story for the first time in almost 16 years. I feel like the new wave of Burton fans are enjoying his films ‘just because’ (much like I did as a big Jim Carrey fan as a kid), but, if their appreciation of his current work is sending them backward towards Beetlejuice and Ed Wood then I’m all for it. In fact most conversations I have with fans of current Burton seem to go like this:

Them: “I love Sweeney Todd.”
Me: “I hate it. I far prefer his early stuff like Edward Scissorhands.”
Them (with genuine conviction): “Oh my God! Yes! I loooooooooooooove Edward Scissorhands so much!”

I have my fingers crossed for Alice In Wonderland, but the prospect of a new Tim Burton just doesn’t excite me as it once did. Henry Selick’s Coraline on the other hand…

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.


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