Tim Burton’s career has quietly turned 25 years old and probably still has a long life ahead. We at An Alan Smithee Podcast feel that Burton’s best years are long behind him, but his best work constitutes some of the best movies of these past 25 years…it’s just that they’re relegated to the first 10. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is probably among the few perfect comedy films ever made, and Pauline Kael was among the few critics of 1988 to declare Beetlejuice the comedy classic which it is. There were his epochal Batman films, the tender Ed Wood and the animated landmark The Nightmare Before Christmas. From the 80s through the 90s, who wasn’t a Tim Burton fan?
Lately Burton has repeated himself, mainly as a reliable hand for stylized remakes – his very name becoming shorthand for movies with a certain kind of heavy art direction. Lest we forget, he did start at Disney, a company whose attention to visual branding is second to few. The overall effect of Burton’s transformation into a brand could all be seen piecemeal in Edward Scissorhands: pastel suburban kitsch, monochromatic angular gothic, and Johnny Depp to bring in the women.
In Burton’s defense, his style has been imitated to the point of being a popular influence and has been practically institutionalized as a globally recognized “look.” The Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise sells all over the world across all cultural lines like Mickey Mouse…who happens to own Nightmare. More importantly, mainstream films are fantasy films and fantasy films are mainstream films. The emergence of the superhero movie genre apexed with the ponderous drivel of The Dark Knight and it’s nauseating critical salutations; a natural long-term result of the trails blazed by Burton’s Batman, which had no precedent to rely upon except the Superman series.
The heady thrills of Burton’s effects-driven films are as commonplace now as the original Star Wars movies. The graphic design he brought to them has also become de rigeur, to the point that the “Tim Burton” style has become shorthand for a certain kind of specific look. Burton has become a peddler of himself, and may as well add “Tim Burton’s” to the title of whatever modern remake he’s adding his trademark gloss onto.
On his own terms, there’s a distinct point at which thing went sour for Burton’s movies simply because he stopped taking artistic risks. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we pick apart the turning point. I think for a while we both blamed the critically derided hit remake Planet of the Apes, but that film wasn’t the beginning of the end. That would be 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. This was the first Burton remake, his first Johnny Depp for-no-reason vehicle and the first truly not-good Tim Burton movie.
Our good Tim Burton movie was therefore the last sign of life he ever showed, the great yet indifferently received Mars Attacks! from three years earlier. This is a film which deserves Pauline Kael’s “comedy classic” status and rediscovery by fans of Burton’s early, anarchic comedies like Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee. The anarchy would cease forever after Mars Attacks!, and a new Burton would emerge who is preoccupied with refashioning intellectual properties owned by AOL TimeWarner with diminishing creative returns. Listen to this episode to hear us try to figure out why. (Hint: The Internet)
With music by Danny Elfman…of course!
NEXT EPISODE: ALIEN (RIDLEY SCOTT, 1979) & ALIEN 2: ON EARTH (1980, CIRO IPPOLITO)