Monday, October 31, 2016

The Strange and Unusual Golden Era of Tim Burton

With the Halloween season this week, as well as the recent release of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, now is an interesting time to look back on the early and undeniably-idiosyncratic career of one of the most unique and imaginative film directors of our era. Often known for his love of the macabre and the strange, Tim Burton has played a role in several different and specific genres and mediums (some of them all at once): animation, comedy, supernatural, horror, comic book, modern-day fantasy, and biopic. His early work from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties (1985-1994) specifically set the tone for his later works. Here's a look back at those films.

Pee-Wee Herman (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Burton began his career as a Disney animator in the early-Eighties, with his short films "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie". Although not the first movie most people often think of from him, Burton's feature-film debut, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), stars the ever-popular man-child creation of Paul Reubens, who travels across country in a comedic quest to find his stolen bicycle. Echoing the classic sensibilities and physical humor of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis, this film also displayed Burton's visual style: bizarre, quirky, expressionistic, absurd, and all in the style of a live-action cartoon. And although it's essentially a comedy, Pee-Wee is kind of a hard film to categorize.

Pee-Wee experiences the dark side and the interesting side of the world as he meets an offbeat cast of characters, from ghostly truck drivers to criminals to bikers to Alamo tourists, all up to a memorable chase on the Warner Bros. lot (not seen on screen since Blazing Saddles in 1974). And as memorable as he is (the film has become a cult classic in the pop culture zeitgeist since then), Pee-Wee Herman is also one of the strangest characters ever brought to the screen, what with his quirky mannerisms and voice, not to mention his inventive household of toys and contraptions. (Remember his breakfast machine?) He even considers himself a "loner," despite his friendship with Dottie (who constantly begs him for a date to the drive-in) and sweet moments with diner waitress Simone (who dreams of going to France). It's no wonder the film's tagline on the poster read, "The story of a rebel and his bike" (possibly a silly play on James Dean or Marlon Brando).

Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Speaking of cartoon features, Burton would jump back and forth between live-action and animated projects over the years, specifically in the medium of stop-motion animation for the latter. And his style has mostly remained in tact, whether conceiving, producing and/or directing his pet projects The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), or a film version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), as well as his sophomore effort--a supernatural horror-comedy called Beetlejuice.

If Pee-Wee set a standard for Burton's brand of quirkiness, then Beetlejuice (1988) set a standard for his brand of macabre. In the same category as Ghostbusters made four years prior, this supernatural horror-comedy puts a twist on the "haunted house" notion, as a newly-deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Genna Davis) are "haunted" by the new owners of their home, and they don't really know what to do about it. As one character says, "live people ignore the strange and unusual." They soon call on a "freelance bio-exorcist" for help, only to find him as a ghoul with a wild and crazy (and perverted) personality.

Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice
Michael Keaton is a hoot as the titular character, and Bo Welch's production design give the film an animated zaniness and spookiness. Yet, the film laughs its way through misguided spirituality and convoluted perspectives on the afterlife. For one thing, it seems people in the latter apparently don't want those in the real world to know there is life after death. This knack of macabre, as well as misguided spirituality, would be evident in Burton's later horror-inspired films, such as Sleepy Hallow (1999), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Dark Shadows (2012).

For the first time since the release of Richard Donner's take on Superman in 1978, Batman (1989) became the quintessential film that set a new benchmark for what a comic book movie could be ("dark" and "definitive," as executive producer Michael E. Uslan describes). It was also a revolutionary achievement on so many levels, not least of which was the film's dark, expressionistic world of Gotham City (courtesy Oscar-winning production design by Anton Furst), the unconventional casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and the now-famous (and wordless) marketing emblem with the black bat symbol caged in gold.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
While not perfect, the film is poetically symbolic in illustrating characters with duel personalities, as well as themes in terror and danger, heroism and villainy, and the provocative debate of which character or notion creates which. Burton played a key role in this seminal redefining, and the film holds up to this day, despite its old-fashioned (and dated) moviemaking techniques and Prince music.

Burton did return for the sequel, Batman Returns (1992), and showcased characters with animal-like qualities and split personalities (The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin), which made the film intriguing. But it wasn't enough to make up for Burton's creative control going too far, resulting in a brooding, often nightmarish, cinematic atmosphere (another example of Burton's knack for the macabre).

Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands
Yet, between both of these films, Burton found time to bring to the screen another pet project, one that goes back to a drawing he reportedly made as a teenager. A contemporary version of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein set in suburban America (reportedly based off of Burton's hometown of Burbank, CA), Edward Scissorhands (1990) also stands as a modern day fairy tale. It illustrates Burton's recurring theme of lonely social outcasts--in this case, an incomplete (and imperfect) creation (Johnny Depp) with razors for hands, who is taken in by a kindhearted Avon lady (Dianne Weist) and falls in love with her daughter (Winona Ryder).

Like the titular character, the film is imperfect, and contains some unnecessary sexual content that's not family-friendly. It's also a bit violent at times, and even tragic (dare I say, depressing) with its lonely social outcast motif. But there are some, if not many, beautiful moments, such as the memorable scene where Ryder dances in the snow.

Burton would go on to direct other fantasy films (some, period fantasy), like Big Fish (2003), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). But he may not have made those films had it not been for Edward Scissorhands (and screenwriter/frequent collaborator Caroline Thompson), which still contains an odd sweetness and heartache unlike anything Burton had tackled before.

Johnny Depp in Ed Wood
The final genre in this look back is the biopic. And Burton found his niche in this genre by telling the fact-based story of Edward D. Wood, Jr., considered by many to be the worst film director of all time. Played flawlessly by Johnny Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton), Ed Wood (1994) tells the story of a passionate filmmaker unaware of his own flaws (he would reportedly do scenes in no more than one take, and even cross-dressed on occasion), who went on to direct such hated films as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Considered a love letter to B-movie cinema that will please die-hard cinephiles, it also features an Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau as the legendary-yet-aging-and-troubling Bela Lugosi. This notion of B-movie-making may have echoed into Burton's next feature, the mean-spirited special-effects comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), and he wouldn't return to the biopic genre for another twenty years, when Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski came to him with Big Eyes (2014), based on the true story of painter Margaret Keane.

Billy Crudup and Albert Finney in Big Fish
Burton's various works within those twenty years would be considered hit-or-miss--some critically-successful, some financially-successful, sometimes both. Some recommendable; others, not so much. But one thing is for certain: much like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan, nobody makes films (including those from the first decade of his career) quite like Tim Burton, no matter how "strange and unusual."

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