Article – Tim Burton: A Consumer’s Guide

It’s Alive!

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, Jamuary 2004)

Tim Burton is one of those directors with a distictive style yet whose work is remarkably difficult to categorise. Still rather young, he’s enjoyed a long and successful career and his latest film is released this month

For those who like to condemn Hollywood films as nothing but generic pap, there’s usually someone around to buck the trend. Tim Burton has always worked within the Hollywood system – at one point being the biggest director on the planet thanks to Batman – but he has never relinquished his wacky outsider status. So much so that you can’t help feel that the reason he continues to make films is so his superiors can point to him and say they can be artistic, as an excuse for the latest nonsense starring Bruce Willis.

The popular image of Tim Burton is of a goth throwback with Robert Smith hair who gives us often self-indulgent but frequently magical modern fairy tales. He also has a talent for shagging the world’s most beautiful women (Helena Bonham-Carter at the last count) plus a tendency to use the same company of actors, often as alternative versions of himself: e.g. Paul Reubens, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp.

Burton shares a lot with fellow fantasist and animator Terry Gilliam, including a strong Anglophilia, although he has a greater love of the kitsch, camp and just plain awful. He’s also responsible for reinventing film music, thanks to his promotion of Danny Elfman’s quirky work. Burton’s film have a consistent habit of disappointing on first viewing and rewarding on subsequent viewings and his latest film, Big Fish, stars Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney and is a typically Burtonian story that is already being talked about as his best film yet. But how did he get to this point?

The Early Short Films
The general belief is that Timothy William Burton started off as an animator (for Disney amongst others) before moving into live action films, although, like Steven Spielberg, he was shooting his own shorts starring various friends and family from an early age. The first short, The Island of Doctor Agor (1971), was made when Burton was 13 and features himself as the eponymous genome-wielding doctor, a character not at all based on H.G. Wells’s novel. It featured some very home made animation as did Stalk of the Celery (1979) a film Burton has so successfully buried virtually nothing is known about it.

Next came Vincent (1982), the six minute wholly animated film that put this by now 24 year old Disney animator on the map. It features a boy obsessed by the works of Vincent Price and, appropriately, has the man himself providing the macabre poetry narration. It really is very good and it’s no wonder that people started to take notice of this slip of a lad who, at the time, was drawing cells for the Fox and the Hound. His bosses also started to notice, which is why they funded his next short Frankenweenie (1984), Burton’s first proper live action film which came in at a whopping 29 minutes. It caused quite a controversy amongst the notoriously scaredy Disney execs, being the story of a boy whose dog is killed and his attempts to resurrect it, and it was never released in cinemas. But by now Burton was the hot young kid on the block and there really was no stopping him.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
For Burton’s first ‘proper’ feature he took a guy who made a notoriously adolescent (in a good way) children’s show presenter and turned him into a film star. Paul Reubens (AKA Pee-Wee Herman) was just a big kid really (albeit a big kid who liked to visit porn cinemas, which was to be his downfall) and he and Burton ‘clicked’ in a film ostensibly about the search for a stolen bike but which contains much undeniable magic. A rare children’s film that got across the board critical acclaim; ironically it’s fair to say, that this wasn’t for the mainstream audience it desired.

Beetlejuice (1988)
This is the film that really made Burton’s name; a comedy/horror/fantasy about a really nice couple who happen to be ghosts and the horrendous (and horrendously pretentious) people who move into their dream spook house. A completely surprising hit that made stars out of the likes of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. Ostensible star Michael Keaton was already a ‘name’ but Burton’s innate gratitude led him to controversially cast him as…

Batman (1989)
One of the biggest money-spinners of all time, which led to the revival and reinvention of the moribund superhero genre. A gothic and revisionist take on the character, inspired by the intellectual revival occurring in comic books, it features Keaton being not quite what you expect as Bruce Wayne (to the film’s credit) and Jack Nicholson’s positively scene chewing turn as the manic Joker. It’s hard to imagine now but the film was a genuine belt around the chops to the cinema public.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)
With carte blanche to do what he wanted from a grateful Hollywood machine, Burton turned his hand to this modern day fairy tale about a hideous modern day Frankenstein’s Monster – okay, he was never going to be that hideous when portrayed by then golden boy Johnny Depp. Unlike Batman, this polarised the viewing public like you wouldn’t believe, some crying ‘manipulation’, some crying ‘beautiful’, others crying ‘garbage’.

Batman Returns (1992)
Burton isn’t one for sequels, which may have something to do with this, his one and only entry in the sub-genre. While it is a decent attempt, wisely concentrating on new characters Catwoman and The Penguin, as well as Christopher Walken’s wholly believable ruthless capitalist, the law of diminishing returns has already applied and it never quite applies the same killer blow as the first film. Still, it has got an appearance from a post-disgrace Paul Reubens.

Ed Wood (1994)
Burton’s first failure probably stemmed from the fact that it’s a marketing department’s nightmare. Is it a comedy, is it a satire, is it a pastiche? Ed Wood is none of these things; it is simply the celebration of probably the worst filmmaker ever, not exactly the stuff of dreams. It is a great film though, and contains a great performance by Depp in the title role, shaking off his dreamboy image already, but its unappetising subject matter is both its greatness and its ultimate failure. You end up loving Ed Wood just as much as you want to scream in his ear.

Mars Attacks! (1996)
There aren’t many directors who would take as their inspiration a series of particularly graphic trading cards but that’s precisely what Burton set out to do here. Both a satire and celebration of 50s idiocy, this marshalled a huge cast – Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Pierce Brosnan et al – simply as cannon fodder for the real stars of the film: the adolescent, puerile, brutal and wholly computer animated Martians. Kakk-kakk-kakk!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
After attempting so many idiosyncratic genres, it was only natural that Anglophile Burton would one day turn his hand to that most reviled of British genres: Hammer Horror. Okay, it’s set in New England and adapted from a story by Washington Irving by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, but believe me, this is pure Hammer right down to all the noble Brit thespians in the cast waiting to be slain by the supposedly ‘headless’ horseman. Again, this was another Burton film that both refused to be categorised and refused to find an audience.

Planet of the Apes (2001)
Burton attempted to go mainstream again with his first proper remake and produced probably his worst film. The original was an accomplishment for realising what was thought to be an unfilmable novel. This has no such expectations and doesn’t do much of anything really, containing a notoriously odd ending in place of the original’s genuine shocker and making the mistake of casting leaden Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. One of the many films that tanked at the notorious 2001 summer box office.

Big Fish (2003)
As a child, Billy Crudup had long got used to his father’s (Albert Finney) tales of his youth, including the ridiculous tale of how he met his mother (Jessica Lange). However, with Finney now dying, maybe it’s time Crudup took these tales a bit more seriously. Cue lots of flashbacks starring a young Finney, played by Ewan McGregor. It isn’t out yet but it sounds fantastic. The trouble is, all Burton’s films sound great.

Big Fish is released on January 30th


About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at) or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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