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There are few directors with a visual style more instantly recognisable than Tim Burton; not many who would dare to take the monstrous, dark, and gothic and blend it with the bizarre and the absurd. Few have ever managed to take death and darkness and imbue it with a sense of wonder and vitality in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. At least that’s how it used to be; now whenever a new Tim Burton film is released, I always hope desperately that it’s a return to form, and for a long time now he always seems to disappoint. Just what happened to the whimsical weirdo with gothic and absurdist sensibilities?
From Alice in Wonderland onward, it seems as if he’s just aping his own style and is out of fresh ideas, which is most obvious in the fact that four of his six films from the last decade have been remakes, and it’s no coincidence that the best-reviewed of these six was Frankenweenie, a remake of his own short film from the 80s. It’s nothing short of depressing to see one of my favourite filmmakers transition from being one of the most imaginative in the industry to slapping his signature style onto whatever script is placed in front of him for what seems like a hefty paycheck. So, how did it come to this?
When Burton burst onto the scene in the late eighties and early nineties he had previously worked as a Disney animator and short film director during which time he developed his iconic visual style influenced by German expressionism and made his first attempts at stop motion animation. His first major success came with 1988’s Beetlejuice, which along with 1990’s Edward Scissorhands formed a distinct critique of yuppie culture, gentrification, and the social conservatism of the late eighties that formed a unique blend of the gothic, macabre, fairy tale, and the satirical that no one had ever attempted before (aside from inspiring many a teenage emo phase).
But his most commercially successful early works had to be Batman and Batman Returns, monumental projects many directors weren’t convinced they could tackle. The project had been in development hell for years and even then had an especially fickle fanbase. Burton was a perfect choice, managing to unite the dark and gothic elements that would define later Batman iterations and still bring the campy side the earlier Batman brand had been known for. And more than anything, Burton’s gothic, imposing, film-noir inspired Gotham City feels like a character in itself. Can you really imagine anyone else pairing a BDSM inspired Catwoman with a troupe of zany circus henchmen?
Batman Returns marked the apex of a particular tension Burton had with Hollywood; the film’s risqué elements led to a legion of displeased parents pressuring McDonald’s to drop their toy line for the film, and the subsequent two Batman films were far lighter in both tone and colour palette. Burton’s early struggles with staying true to his unique vision and delivering a final product inoffensive enough to please studio heads actually goes back to his time as a Disney animator when his concept art never made it into the final cut and his short films were considered too dark for children, resulting in his dismissal from Disney.
But the experience he gained working in stop motion animation proved invaluable when years later he began producing stop motion classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Corpse Bride, and his remake of Frankenweenie, the very short film which got him ejected from Disney remade by Disney and seen as perfectly suitable for children which serves as a testament to the extent of his influence. The commercial success of these films helped to prove the viability of the impossibly arduous process of stop motion animation, laying the foundations for studios such as Laika. It’s an incredibly short list of filmmakers who can boast mastery of both live-action and animation.
The hallmark of any auteur director is where they draw their cinematic influences from, and rather endearingly, Burton’s came from a most unlikely source – fifties B movie director Ed Wood, commonly regarded as among the worst directors in history. But why be ashamed – there’s nothing more entertaining than a hilariously bad movie with pure camp value. This love of schlocky fifties sci-fi B movies resulted in Burton’s eponymous biopic, Ed Wood, and his Wood-inspired parody of this genre, Mars Attacks! It really does take a lot of courage to not only be openly inspired by the very worst but to turn that influence into a lovingly crafted homage.
With the dawn of the new millennium came a transitional decade for Burton as a filmmaker. It started with his 2001 remake Planet of the Apes, which had its budget slashed, its release date unmovable, and a studio-mandated, nonsensical twist ending. His next remake would be 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by which point it seemed like he was done with fresh ideas and starting to parody his own style: pale people, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, cartoonish visuals, rinse and repeat.
His live-action films from this point onward generally lack the magic of his earlier work, have weaker and more generic plots, and a growing reliance on CGI. It’s heartbreaking to see that such a visionary seems to have completely lost interest in his own work, but when you’ve achieved as much as Tim Burton what is there left to do?
But there is one bright spark of that creativity remaining in his recent filmography which seems to grow more distant with each passing year: 2007’s Sweeney Todd. Stephen Sondheim’s macabre black comedy musical masterpiece was the perfect source material for Burton, no one else could’ve made the grimy streets of Victorian London look like something straight out of a nightmare, could’ve made every drop of blood and slit of the throat burst with life. And it was all downhill after that.
His unmistakable aesthetic changed from something that actually served a purpose to the world of the film to just a tin to package trope-ridden remakes. It’s hard to believe that the same guy who once risked everything in parting ways with Disney for refusing to betray his weird and wonderful vision is now comfortably commodifying that vision for who else but Disney and settled down into complacent self-parody. The future may not be optimistic, but there’s nothing better than revisiting his earlier work and enjoying the creativity that changed popular film forever and brims with directorial passion.