Recently I found myself with a free day to continue going through recent film purchases. This brought me to the position of rewatching the 1994 Tim Burton film Ed Wood. Now in the past I have been guilty of insulting Tim Burton’s work, I’ve never been a fan of his newer films that have been released in recent years, however it is in this act of stupidity that I neglected to talk of how much I admire Burton as a filmmaker. It is films such as Ed Wood that remind me is a very talented man with a great eye for cinema. This only leads me to ask the all important question: what happened?
When I was a child I remember so clearly watching Burton’s films and loving every second of them. Edward Scissorhands has remained with me as a film I really like, it managed to capture such beauty that stays in the mind without diminishing. Then there were films like The Nightmare Before Christmas which everyone wrongly attributes Burton to as the director when actually he was the writer, but still it proves itself as such a wonderful story with disturbingly funny characters. I think the highlight for me of his work when I was a child however was The Corpse Bride which is such a wonderfully dark film I can just keep coming back to and fall in love with it a little bit more with each viewing. Even some of his more questionable work was a part of my childhood, such as Batman Returns which was good but somewhat overlooked since the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, and even films like Big Fish that I never really understood the big fuss about but I’m aware I need to rewatch it now that I’m older. He was just a brilliant filmmaker who made beautifully haunting films that you would rewatch countless times no matter how much they creeped you out, but it was all a terrific experience.
If I had to pick one film of his back catalogue that I would say is a favourite for me, it is a tough choice, but ultimately I do know what it would be. Ed Wood and The Corpse Bride would both fall a very close joint second place, but the top spot has to be filled by his 1988 masterpiece Beetlejuice. I am fully aware that the film is not perfect and it is looked down upon by many, but every element of the film pleases me. From the outstanding performance by an energetic Michael Keaton, right down to the makeup and the obscure creatures and locations the film offers us, I just find myself smiling every time I watch the film. I’m aware that Burton was not involved with the writing of the film but I think his directing for the film is unparalleled with the rest of his back catalogue, a truly weird and nonsensical film that stands strong in the test of time.
Considering those films previously mentioned, along with others that I have left out, it is a real shame to see that Burton has slipped off the mark with his newer films. He once stood as a director praised for his gothic visual style and obscurity, but now he seems to be someone who is trying to hard to be the weird one in Hollywood. I have to admit that with a lot of his new films I have not seen eye to eye with them at all.
Firstly if we consider Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 2007 horror musical… thing. It was a project that seemed perfect for Burton, with the dickensian atmosphere and the unabashedly dark subject matter it looked like if anyone was going to master it then it would be Burton. However for me there is just something about the film that does not work. It is a film that feels as though it should have stayed as a stage production, it’s very theatrical. This doesn’t necessarily work when mixed with Burton’s gothic style because it feels too forced. It is as if Burton was trying to go darker, trying to make it more gothic than it already is, but we already know the story of Sweeney Todd all too well and so it just makes the whole experience unnerving. It’s not a film you can sink into as much as something like Ed Wood. With films like Ed Wood they’re a presence that settles into the room. Sweeney Todd enters the room like a bluebottle, flies around without ever settling, makes an annoying sound in your ear, before leaving two hours later and amounting to quite frankly not a lot. I admire Burton for making the film he wanted to, but ultimately it didn’t quite work for me.
Next we have to consider the 2010 annoyance that was Alice in Wonderland which really did not need to be made. It’s not just because the screenplay is hugely unamusing and the acting is resemblant of that in a primary school production, but it’s because Burton tried to make it his own. The thing with Alice in Wonderland is that the world created by Lewis Carroll is so distinctive enough as it is. If someone mentions the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat or Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee people automatically think of Alice in Wonderland because it has characters and locations that we all know so well. So having Burton come along and try to make this his own was never going to work, and I don’t think it’s Burton’s fault because no director would be able to make it their own. If anything even talented fantasy directors like Guillermo del Toro would be unsuccessful in such a venture, so I don’t think this is solely Burton’s fault. It is as if the book is a piece of material suspended between two poles. In some cases the book is like clingfilm and is easy for the director to push through it with their own style. In this case the source material is made of leather, and so no matter how far Burton tries to push through it he is never going to get through it. I admit the new narrative structure featuring a near adult version of Alice was interesting, however it was not utilised properly and so resulted in the film resembling a balloon with no air in it.
Finally, although there are others I could mention, I don’t think I could forget to mention the problematic 2012 reboot of Dark Shadows. I’m aware I have talked about this film numerous times on my blog and I have thoroughly ripped it to shreds, so basically all there is to to say is that it is rubbish. It is absolutely awful. Not only in an upsetting way but in an infuriating way too because I sat watching it thinking “this is the man that made Corpse Bride, we know you are better than this so just get it together man!”. It just feels like segments from different films that have been sewn together, and sewn together badly may I point out, so as soon as it starts walking it falls apart piece by piece like a patchwork zombie. First the nose falls off, then the ears, then by the time you reach the final act of the film you’ve got limbs falling off, before this steaming pile of shit eventually stops painfully crawling and reaches and ending that should have happened immediately after it began.
Up until this point it is evident that Burton’s new additions to cinema have not been up to scratch. His body of work up until a certain point was so impressive and it built the pathway to everyone viewing him as the auteur we all know and love. Because the standard was set so high with films like Ed Wood it is understandable that anything that falls short of our high expectations would be viewed less positively. However I have a strong feeling that this is changing. You see I have not yet seen Burton’s latest film, Big Eyes, and I have to say I have a very good feeling about it.
The main reason I am so excited is that Burton’s heart is clearly in the right place, he is making this film because the true story that inspired the film is one that means a lot to him. Burton was part of the generation that grew up with the art of Margaret Keane, featuring in houses and business all over the place, finding this unique style haunting but beautiful. At the time he was obviously unaware of what actually happened concerning her husband Walter, much like a lot of people nowadays, so it is admirable that Burton wants to spread awareness and inform people of this shocking story.
There is something about Burton making a film from a true story that makes me feel so relaxed and unworried about the project. After his triumph with Ed Wood it is clear that he can apply his style of filmmaking appropriately to make a film that is nicely balanced between artistic and informative, between style and substance. That’s what I want from Big Eyes. I want a film that has a sound and informative narrative, wrapped in the visual style that Burton masters wonderfully. I know he is capable of it and I am feeling increasingly optimistic about the film. I’m not expecting it to be as good as Ed Wood because that was a level of filmmaking that is hard to parallel, but I at least want this to be a solid piece of film that shows Burton heading back in the right direction.
What was always brilliant about Burton’s older work is that each piece meant something. Of course they were visually intriguing and created humour in the nonsensical, but then at the core they all meant something and had a beating heart. Think about it. Corpse Bride, when you take out the singing skeletons and eyeballs that pop out, the film presents a powerful message about love and how greed inevitably leads to self destruction. Edward Scissorhands delivers a wonderful message of letting in the unknown and finding beauty in it. The Nightmare Before Christmas in it’s most basic form is about respecting other people’s cultures that differ from your own, the list goes on! It is obvious they all meant something, they were rich in substance. This was lost in newer films like Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland which focused way too heavily on style. It’s a real shame when you consider how much I love Tim Burton as a filmmaker and how impressive his back catalogue is. But I think if any film were to bring him back to making good films that mean something, it’s going to be this one.
As I said before I have not seen Big Eyes yet but I intend to watch it very soon. Once I have watched it I will probably write a follow up analysis, just to see if it met my expectations and did, as I hope it will, bring Tim Burton back to top form.For such a talented filmmaker he deserves to be one that I hold as one of my favourites. For the time being he has slipped away from this, but I am hoping Big Eyes will be the film to bring him back. I know he can do it, I just need to see it happen on screen.