Tim Burton’s Serious Case of Arrested Development

The internet barely tittered when rumors broke that Tim Burton’s newest production may be a live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s children’s book Pinocchio. Consider how Rotten Tomatoes reported it: “Tim Burton may make Pinocchio without Johnny Depp.” The story is not the film but its possible star.

When it comes to Burton audiences have accepted Depp as the foregone conclusion. To have anyone else take the lead would constitute a new(ish) direction for Burton. A sign of growth. That’s not something most audiences have come to expect from him as a director. He’s been fairly stilted these days, so when he announces a new project, you can be fairly certain of its content: a retooling of a well-known story with eccentric production design.

Unfortunately, the news of Pinocchio isn’t a sign of transformation. Prior to these rumors, Burton was attached to direct a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty. Swapping one fairy tale for another is hardly a sea change. It’s arrested development.

Of late, Burton’s film choices have been symptomatic of a perpetual adolescence. Rather than evolving as an artist, he’s been making essentially the same movie for the better part of the last decade, and in some ways, his whole career.

Burton tells stories of misfits who long to be special or need only to be recognized as such. Edward (Johnny Depp), in Edward Scissorhands (1990), is viewed as a monster until closer inspection reveals him to be a gifted sculptor and coiffeur. In Alice in Wonderland (2010), Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is so turned off by society’s expectations she runs away to another world where she discovers her destiny to save “Underland.” The idea’s even explicitly stated in the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory(2005): “Charlie Bucket was the luckiest boy in the entire world. He just didn’t know it yet.”

It’s no surprise then that Burton has so many adolescent fans. It’s an age when many people feel like outcasts who are subjugated by powers outside their control. It’s a time where they’re at once disenchanted and holding onto the remnants of childlike whimsy. Burton grew up as exactly this misfit—his films and heroes reflect that. But he’s no longer an adolescent. He needs to move on.

Filmmakers, like all artists, have their idée fixe, the theme they love to return to, film after film. But while other directors learn to approach their obsession with greater tenderness, maturity, and novelty, Burton recycles. He recycles plots, characters, casts, and most egregious of all, stories—sometimes even his own.

Burton’s greatest hits (that is, his more recognizably Burtonesque films, not his most critically acclaimed) are fixated on animating the inanimate, dead or otherwise. In Frankenweenie (1984), it’s bringing to life a departed dog; in Edward Scissorhands, it’s the building of Edward; in Beetlejuice (1988), it’s the ghosts of the Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis); in Sleepy Hollow (1999), it’s the specter of the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken); in Corpse Bride (2005), it’s the eponymous Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter, voice); in Pinocchio it will be the wooden boy-puppet brought to life. This theme so encompasses Burton’s process that it surpasses mere plot device and becomes the film itself. Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) (a film many forget Burton didn’t direct, but creatively birthed), Corpse Bride, and the forthcoming Frankenweenie are all stop-motion animation films, in which inanimate objects are brought to life via the magic of celluloid.

With each production it becomes more evident that Burton’s failed to venture into territories new to his or other people’s films, for that matter. Other people’s ideas being, apparently, another of his fixations, Burton has become somewhat infamous for remakes. This year alone, Burton will be treating audiences to two different features, both of which are remakes (or if you’re being generous, adaptations). First, there’s Dark Shadows, a film based on the cult television series which ran from 1966 to 1971. It follows vampire Barnabus Collins and his run-ins with supernatural monsters—perfect Burton material, no? His other picture that will come out this year is Frankenweenie, a full-length reworking of the short film he made in 1984. He’s plundering his own back catalogue now—a sure sign that he’s running a deficit on ideas.

In reality Burton’s work has always been reliant on preexisting intellectual property, even as far back as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Hell, there’s hardly an original script getting produced in Hollywood these days, so one can’t blame Burton for that.

Burton’s sin is really not one of repurposing; it’s his failure to breathe life and humanity into the films that he directs. One would think that as someone who is obsessed with the idea of animating the inert, he’d have a better handle on it.

In light of Pinocchio, consider his two most recent adaptations of children’s stories. Alice in Wonderland (2010) is a wildly miscalculated take on Lewis Carroll’s tale. Neither a live-action remake of the Disney classic, nor a faithful interpretation of the novel (1865) and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871), it falls somewhere to the side of all three, being closer in parity with the SyFy Channel’s miniseries Alice (2009) than anything else. Its characters are flat. The action generic. Conversely, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory attempts to be true to the grotesqueries of Roald Dahl’s text (1964), though it’s misled by its own peculiarities. In both cases, Burton’s pictorial flair takes precedence over fully-realized storytelling.

Arguably, Burton has made good, even great cinema, but it came out prior to the turn of this century. Ed Wood (1994) comes to mind: a film that’s odd and beguiling precisely because it has a human being at its heart and not some cartoonish sketch of affectations. Unfortunately, after the year 2000, Burton all but stopped probing the human condition and instead began pulling a Victor Frankenstein on well-tread ideas, making films that need not be (re)made. The first such film was a “reimagining” of 1968’s Planet of the Apes. It’s unmemorable. But it did become the progenitor for the Burton moviemaking formula:

  1. Select source material that is (a) preferably dark or can have its light levels adjusted and (b) old enough to have formed a layer of nostalgia around it. See: Planet of the Apes (2001), Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and to a lesser extent, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
  2. Stamp it with Tim Burton’s indelible trademarks. Sets should appear as artificial and explicitly designed as possible. They should be inhabited by characters whose eccentricities are nothing more than pageantry.
  3. Retool the backstory of a protagonist, supporting player, or entire plot of said source material in order to provide the illusion of depth and novelty. See: Willy Wonka and the plots of Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland.
  4. Wait for audiences to split their opinion. Some will love the idea, and based on their nostalgia for the original in addition to their admiration for Burton, will wait in anticipation. Others will decry the very notion of a Burton adaptation, claiming that one can’t remake said classic, citing their nostalgia for the original, in addition to their suspicions of the filmmaker’s abilities and motives. Both will inevitably find themselves seated in the theater, eyeballs glued to silver screen, and eager to witness how Burton transcended the material/screwed the pooch.

Nostalgia being the driving force for Burton and his audience, it’s an almost impossible hurdle to jump as a director. Directors who successfully remake classics accomplish three things: (1) they overcome the audience’s (and their own) projections of the source material, while also (2) showing respect to it, and (3) privilege their personal aesthetic to create a film that stands on its own merits. To achieve (3) alone is a challenge. To do (1) and (2) on top of (3) is, well, superhuman.

It’s precisely this balance that Burton has been unable to strike over the last decade, especially in Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At the very least, Depp’s performances in both films provide an analogy. Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter are like Burton’s recent films—all quirks and no heart.

And that is Burton’s most precarious flaw, especially in his later work: he confuses production design with filmmaking. His recent films continue to rely on Burtonesque imagery to convey magic and wonder, and he seems to have forgotten that movies can be both magical and wondrous with a light touch.

The reason Big Fish (2003) stands apart from the rest of his films during the 2000s is that it required Burton to curb his tendencies. While the seminal touches are there—the wiry trees, the artificial-looking set pieces, the carnivalesque atmosphere—they are far more subtle. The film is sentimental and precious at times, but it achieves that through real characterization, not art direction. In order to tell the story effectively, Burton had to tone it down. For the fantastic elements in the film to stretch believability—as is the central conceit of the story—the framing narrative has to reside in our world, a world so plain it is even a little boring.

Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, is a grab bag of visual stimuli. Even the parts of the movie set outside of Wonderland are coated in an uncanny sheen. The 3D certainly doesn’t help.

If Burton continues down the path he set for himself, his movies will continue to bloat and lose their charm. The distance between him, his audience, and the stories that he tries to tell will widen. Unless he can reverse course, maybe make an intimate picture, something deeply personal even, Burton runs the risk of turning his actors into playthings and his films into living dollhouses. There’s no question he enjoys making these films, but there comes a point when his enjoyment becomes so insular that he forgets that he needs to connect to the audience outside the screen. As much as moviegoers want something that looks beautiful, they also want something that registers on an emotional level. Pinocchio comes in handy here. Don’t be satisfied with the marionette, Mr. Burton. Find the real person within.

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2 Comments

  1. Have to admit, started reading this article skeptical and ready to mentally punch the author in the face as I am a fan of Tim Burton. HOWEVER, looking at it objectively, this article brings up some very good points, and ones that I have brought up regarding both books and music (and most movie sequels). Also, I had to chuckle at:
    "4. Wait for audiences to split their opinion. Some will love the idea, and based on their nostalgia for the original in addition to their admiration for Burton, will wait in anticipation. Others will decry the very notion of a Burton adaptation, claiming that one can’t remake said classic, citing their nostalgia for the original, in addition to their suspicions of the filmmaker’s abilities and motives. Both will inevitably find themselves seated in the theater, eyeballs glued to silver screen, and eager to witness how Burton transcended the material/screwed the pooch."
    Well written, but be careful bad mouthing Edward Scissorhands, the guy has hands, that are SCISSORS!

  2. Believe me, you'll find no fan of Burton's recent remakes (Alice, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in this reader, but the same criticism of Burton here is used to laud 'auteurs' with the other hand. Do we say Kurosawa had "arrested development" because of his repeated themes and use of actors? What about Woody Allen for remaking the same film for 40 years?

    That said, I agree full-heartedly that Burton often sees more to work on in the production design aspect than on story, which is wholly disappointing from an audience perspective. Neat article!

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