08 March 2010

Tim Burton: A Rant

Burton “directing” Alice

Tim Burton’s latest movie, Alice in Wonderland, has just been released, and I have absolutely no interest in seeing it. The man is constantly remaking pictures that don’t need remaking, to which he brings nothing but an art director’s sensibility. In the good old days, under the Hollywood Studio System, art direction is what Tim Burton would do for a living. And nothing else. He hasn’t the vaguest clue what’s required to tell a story, and apart from hiring Johnny Depp, he has no idea what screen acting is about. His personal vision is purely visual; he has nothing else of interest to say — about anything.

Remind you of anybody? Depp as Ed Wood

I gave up on Burton after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which the best visual bits are ripped off from the original Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; the rest is frankly ugly, and the picture does a poor job of telling the story. Like its predecessor, Charlie makes the mistake of casting an actor too young to play Wonka; encouraged by Burton to act like Michael Jackson in Neverland, Depp doesn’t manage Gene Wilder’s feat of succeeding on pure charisma (so that you quit caring whether he’s right for the role and just sit back to enjoy him). And in Burton’s film, all that crap about Wonka’s dentist-father was just a brainless recycling of the parent-child relationship of the Penguin (Danny De Vito) in Batman: “Dad didn’t love me, so I turned into a freak.”

Before long, it seemed as if everybody had told this story already. What was the point of this movie?

Depp and Burton on the Charlie set

The rare times Burton’s pictures are any good, it’s because he’s stumbled (accidentally?) across material that works, regardless of what he does to it. His best film, Ed Wood, is also his least representative, because it features a strong script with vivid characters. Burton cast the picture well, especially in so far as Johnny Depp and Martin Landau are concerned: their relationship is the heart of the film, and the director stays out of their way. As for the rest of the picture, what did Burton bring to it that was necessary or even helped much? Was there anything onscreen that another director couldn’t have done as well or better?

Batman at least provided him with an opportunity to reimagine a universe, and his repositioning of the title character as a dark, ambiguous figure was enhanced by the art direction. (Much as the pop-art direction in the 1960s TV show positioned Batman as a campy satire of other superheroes.) The new interpretation stuck.

Since then, however, Burton has gotten lazier. His visual themes don’t reinterpret, they merely restate the original — and very often, they repeat the themes he’s used in all his other pictures. Instead of seeking out strong scripts, Burton prefers half-baked garbage — it’s easier than thinking — and he specializes in ripping off other artists’ work. The Planet of the Apes, anyone? Anyone? Sweeney Todd with a tone-deaf Mrs. Lovett? Anyone? Did Corpse Bride even have a script? Make it anyway! Cue the Danny Elfman chorus! (And never mind that it’s exactly the same song as it was in every picture since Edward Scissorhands.)

In his weird little way, Burton himself is a latter-day Ed Wood. Just as the earlier filmmaker was blind to his real talent — for friendship, not for film — so Burton doesn’t seem to realize that his only talent is as a designer. And audiences, many of whom I suspect are high, respond to his eccentric artwork. They come to see Burton’s movies, just for the visuals — and studios keep bankrolling them.

Depp as the Mad Hatter: WTF?

Now he’s gone after Alice. I’ve yet to see a perfect Alice adaptation, but who needed another mediocre one? Burton has turned the story into some sort of fantasy video game. Suddenly the Mad Hatter is a love interest for Alice, and he’s going into battle with her? With swords and armor?

Honestly, when you’re straying so far from the original, and making such scant use of most of the familiar characters, while radically transfiguring the others, why not call it something else? “Belinda Battles the Very Bad Beast,” for example, or “Tim Burton’s Latest Nightmare Vision with Lots of Twisty-Scraggly Trees.” Alice appears to be a worse travesty than the execrable Sleepy Hollow (which recast Washington Irving’s tale as a Very Special Episode of The X Files).

As a great man of Hollywood — who would have known perfectly well what to do with Tim Burton — once said, “Include me out.”

Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way about Burton.
(Illustration from The Onion.)


October Illustrations said...

Sadly, I can't argue this. Beetlejuice, Edward and Nightmare were works that introduced me to Burton as a kid, and all of his later works feel like bastardized, almost caricatures of his previous work. It feels as if he's Wal-Mart-ized his aesthetic. And really, the whole love-affair with Depp needs to stop. He's been as versatile as an anvil despite his many, many roles. I'd really love to see Tim go back to his illustrating and bring back his original charm.

William V. Madison said...

Thank you -- it's especially interesting to get an illustrator's perspective!