"Frankenweenie" (1984) Burton's first live-action short starred Daniel Stern, Barrett Oliver and Shelley Duvall (plus cameo's by director Paul Bartel and Sofia Coppola), and told the story of young Victor Frankenstein, child of the L.A. suburbs, who brings his run-over dog, "Sparky," back to life with electricity. One big sick joke, but hilarious in its details, and ultimate good will. Made on a shoe-string, it nevertheless looks really good, with lovingly detailed black and white photography, and sets with the look of such future films as "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Beetlejuice" (in their own way paying tribute to the Universal monster movies of the past) including a climax set in a gloomy miniature golf-course, where Sparky runs and hides from a surly mob in the inevitable windmill. From doing five minute animations to making a sustained, consisitently entertaining thirty minute short subject is quite a creative leap, so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that Burton could make a full-length feature. "Groundlings" member Paul Reubens saw "Frankenweenie," and immediately championed Burton to direct the feature debut of a character he'd created and debuted on an HBO special. The script had been in the works for years. All it needed was a director keyed in to bottle-adolescent world that Reubens envisioned. The resulting collaboration made quite an impact...
"BeetleJuice" (1988) After the success of "Pee-wee," Tim Burton stepped back, took a breather, and contemplated his next step--he did some directing for television, but then launched back into film with this bizarre script. As weird as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" was, it doesn't hold a candle to this odd little necro-comedy about a loving couple who finds their dream home, and then are tragically killed in bizarre circumstances. But instead of heading for the after-life they maintain a very happy existence in their house's attic, scaring off the real-estate agents and potential buyers who want to take it over. Frustratingly, their efforts don't perturb a yuppie couple and their goth daughter, but only encourages them (and its made believable as they're played by Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara). So, the After-Lifers turn to the annoying help of a spirit named Beetlejuice, who is not exactly what he seems and not exactly doing what he claims. A great cast manages to stay on top of a script that plays by its own rules. Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are the dead couple. Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara as the live ones, and a new kid named Winona Ryder plays the daughter with death on her mind. Then, there's Michael Keaton as the title character. Burton has always been attracted to actors with a, shall we say, unique way of approaching roles, and Keaton is given a lot of lee-way to create his poltergeist. It reminds one of just how great a talent Keaton can be when not hemmed in and given his head, shrunken or not. Plus, there are cameos by Dick Cavett and Robert Goulet, and Danny Elfman's music puts a dirge-like spin on calypso music. As long as one isn't being too picky about continuity and story-logic, its a slickly sick little movie with a lot of heart.
Tim Burton and Danny Elfman in studio around the time of "Batman"
"Batman" (1989) Despite its overwhelming financial success this was probably a career mis-step, but Burton's design sensibility is one of the highlights of making "Batman" a legitimate live-action hero (especially considering the last person in the role was TV's Adam West). Everything about this adaptation was controversial to the fan-boys who didn't want the character to be turned back into a joke. Well, maybe not a joke, but Burton certainly wanted to explore the twisted side of somebody with a lot of dough who likes to beat up people. And the biggest controversy was casting Keaton again, as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Twerpy little Keaton...as Batman? Actually, it made perfect sense...to twerpy little Burton. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have to dress up as a bat to scare people. But a couch-candidate like Keaton's Wayne? Who better? The script keeps it lean and mean--no Robin, but plenty of toys and a certain kind of fairy-tale spin to the whole proceedings with the chief ogre falling to Jack Nicholson's movie-stealing turn as The Joker. Kim Basinger served the role as damsel-in-distress, but, really it could have been anybody, and the movie was top-heavy with odd casting--Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as the future Two-Face, Jack Palance as a mob boss, and Hammer Studios veteran Michael Gough as an elderly avuncular Alfred. One thing bothers this Bat-purist--Batman kills. It's the same kind of life-taking one sees in the Bond films--anonymous henchmen get caught up in the fireballs of explosions--but here The Bat sends a remote-control Batmobile to drop a couple of factory-destroying explosives to do the dirty work knowing full well there are people inside. But moral quibbles and source inequities aside, it made jillions, and Burton could have directed the phone-book next. But he chose something far quirkier...and personal.
"Edward Scissorhands" (1990) This one probably had the studios scratching their heads wondering if there was something they didn't know. 20th Century Fox took a chance on this product from the super-hot new director, and, incredibly, it did extremely well at the box-office, making the folks at Fox think that audiences were coming to see a "Tim Burton" movie no matter the subject matter. But, when you get down to the marrow of "Edward" it's a gothic fairy tale that resonates like a bed-time story. Young Edward is left abandoned and incomplete when his inventor (Vincent Price again--his last role) dies, and is dropped into a suburbia where he can look but can't touch. Seem a little obvious and cloying? Not with Burton darkening it up, and a superb cast of Alan Arkin --he and Burton seem made for each other, but have only done this one film--Dianne Wiest, Price, Winona Ryder (again), and an incredibly contained performance by Johnny Depp, who seemed to be channeling silent movie performances as Edward (though one look at his black rat's nest hair and you suspect that it's another Burton hero based on Burton). Only a vindictive scissor-skewering late in the proceedings seems out of place and severe for the tale, but one can see the purpose behind it and the origins that influenced it. And Burton uses its consequences to cap the whole thing with an astonishing visual tag that is sad and beautiful and magical simultaneously. He would pull that off again. But first, he'd have to return to old haunts...
"Batman Returns" (1992) With the successes of "Beetlejuice," "Batman," and "Edward Scissorhands" behind him. Burton probably felt he could do no wrong. And, indeed, he had much more creative control over "Batman Returns" than the previous one--the executive producers were off mis-managing Sony Pictures, he had his choice of screenwriters, and he got to pick his villains--going with a trio of animal avatars: the bat, the cat and the penguin. Casting? No problem. Danny DeVito was just the right size and demeanor for Oswald Cobblepot, and Michelle Pfeiffer camped it up (replacing a pregnant Annette Bening) as The Catwoman ("Hear me roar"). The movie made a lot of money, but upset a lot of children, and their parents, and a lot of studio execs who took angry phone-calls from the merchandisers who attached their products to a pretty ghastly exercise. But what'd they expect? Burton took The Penguin character and re-imagined him away from Burgess Meredith's pfaw-Roosevelt, and turned him into a...freakish penguin-man, with flippers for hands, jagged yellow teeth, and what appeared to be black bile spewing from his mouth. The Catwoman was a split-personality (not unlike Batman, Burton pointed out) who was more feminist statement than character. And aesthetically, it seemed like the movie was just a string of one-liners and ironies as opposed to being a solid screenplay. The film did good box-office (though not as good as the first) and amidst all the outcry Burton was relieved of his Bat-duties (he exec'd the next one in name only) and moved on, reputation a bit sullied.
"Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'" (1993) Part of the DNA of Tim Burton's creative process is a deep-rooted nostalgia for the past, of which this film is a prime example. Begun as a Disney-project along the lines of the Rankin-Bass Holiday specials he loved as a child, Burton, flush with success, went back to Disney to resurrect this sublimely weird musical by way of 'The Addams Family" as Jack Skellington, first citizen of Halloween-town discovers another Holiday town (very reminiscent of Chuck Jones' "Whoville" from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas.") themed around Christmas. It is one of the most fully realized of Burton-visions, despite the fact that it's one of his least "hands-on" movies. Longtime collaborator Danny Elfman created the tent-pole songs that advance the story, and animator Henry Selik directed the arduous day-to-day work of putting the 88 minute piece together one...frame...at...a...time. It's an amazing film, made with old movie-making techniques at the dawn of CGI. It is never less than accomplished or assured and delightfully awash with great ideas, sick, twisted and even sweet.
"Ed Wood" (1995) Burton's tribute to another odd-ball director, but Burton imitating Wood is still far, far better than Ed Wood himself, and the cast is in on the joke, because they had a lot of footage of their characters to base their work on. Johnny Depp channels Jon Lovitz as Ed Wood, Sara Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette are The Brides of Wood, Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and Burton g/f Lisa Marie as members of the Wood stock company of Hollywood out-casts, and the crowning jewel is Martin Landau in his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi, not looking so much like him as presenting a nightmarish version of the drug-addled actor. It must have appealed to Burton to present the Wood-Lugosi friendship as a fond memory of his work with Vincent Price. And it never occurs to Burton to present Ed Wood as anything less than blindly romantic and naively pollyannish about his own work and "vision" and legacy to the cine-mah. He allows Wood a fictitious "world premiere" and a meeting with "fellow" visionary Orson Welles (played by Vincent D'Onofrio dubbed by the voice of cartoon's "The Brain," Maurice LaMarche.) "Ed Wood" stands as a sonnett to being besotted with the movies.
"Mars Attacks!" (1996) Giddy horror-comedy with an all-star cast (Jack Nicholson in two roles, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Jim Brown, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Pam Grier, Michael J. Fox, and newbies like Natalie Portman, Jack Black, and Lukas Haas) based on...the Topps bubble-gum card series. One gets the distinct impression that Burton prefers his jello-brained CGI Martians to the real-life human-targets as the carnage is played for horrific laughs. Some of the humor works in an oddly-sick way (can anyone not giggle at Congress being fried, or, in a tribute to Ray Harryhausen sci-fi movies, when a Martian ship tilts the Washington Monument ...just so...to crush some touristy Boy Scouts. Kudo's also for the hilariously graphic way the Martians are dispatched. Burton ends it on an idyllic note amid the Washington D.C. rubble, with--of all things-- Tom Jones singing the thing out. It's Burton being a bad little boy, and probably not everybody's cup of tea. It's not serious enough to be taken as satire, and only fitfully funny to be called a black comedy. Ack! Ack-ack!
"Sleepy Hollow" (1999) Burton takes on the full Hammer horror movie formula with more gore and more heaving bosoms. The legend is turned on its pumpkin-head as Johnny Depp plays Jonathan Crane--a New York detective, not a spindly school-teacher--who is trying to get behind the serial be-headings of the village of Sleepy Hollow. Hammer stalwarts Christopher Lee and Michael Gough are featured, as well as Burton stock-players Depp, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, Martin Landau and Christopher Walken (as the Hessian (and Headless) horseman plaguing the town. But also featured are Christina Ricci--a natural for a Burton film--Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, and Richard Griffiths--and as Burton's token dislikable Aryan, Casper van Dien (Say what you want about Burton's abilities, but he always manages to attract top-flight talent). It's a great cast, and Burton was able to take Andrew Kevin(Se7en) Walker's script and with a rumored polish by Tom Stoppard make it a story of an outsider with weird ideas (Crane's belief in scientific techniques in detecting) trying to deal with a town of doubters, who believe that the murders are supernatural in Nature. Well, somewhat...
There's been speculation that Depp again is playing Burton, this time dealing with Hollywood stuff-shirts who don't understand him, and that might be an interesting sub-text, but as Burton's first out and out horror film, the film is a bit graceless and heavy-handed. Oh, Hammer could be that, all right, but there seemed to be a bit more glee to the proceedings than Burton is able to dredge up. If he was going for more comedy, as was the supposed intention, he failed...and miserably. But the film made money.
Alison Lohman from across the room amidst a suspended explosion of circus pop-corn
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005) This was big box office for Burton on a relatively "safe" project, more in tune with his sensibilities than "Planet of the Apes." "Charlie..." is not so much a remake of the earlier "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" so much as a deconstruction/reconstruction that actuallystays a bit closer to the source material (despite the fact that Roald Dahl is credited with the earlier's screenplay, with a huge uncredited assist from David Seltzer). With far more budget than "Wonka," and a bit more imagination (and without the burden of the more sappy Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse songs), this version, bloated though it is, is a bit closer to Dahl's sensibilities. Danny Elfman uses the author's original texts to create crazy Oompah-Loompah songs in different genres (Bollywood, '60's psychedelia) and performed by Deep Roy in a series of special effects extravaganza's. Two weak spots--a Willie Wonka origin story (though it features Christopher Lee), and Johnny Depp's performance as Wonka, which can't hold a candle to Gene Wilder's psychotic version. One never gets the sense of danger that Wilder's candy-man radiated, but, in its stead is a selfish cluelessness and a chocolate wizard not particularly in control of his creations. The studio thought Wonka should be more warm and parental, a thought that horrified new parents Depp and Burton. "That's crazy!" Burton says "He's the worst person to be a parent!" He had it right.
"Tim Burton's 'Corpse Bride'" (2005) While working on "Big Fish" and "Charlie...," in the background Burton was working on his next stop-motion musical, about a young man betrothed to be married to a perfectly wonderful normal girl (with an ogre-ish family), and through a series of bizarre circumstances finds himself attracted and promised to the corpse of a young bride, cruelly murdered and resurrected by love and the need to avenge her foul murder. Some fun, huh? Dark it is, with the Bride--even though lovely, part of her cheek has been eaten through, exposing her teeth underneath. There are visits to the Underworld, and a Peter Lorre-voiced Conquerer Worm as a Disney-ish avatar. But though it's darker material than Burton's "Nightmare before Christmas," it is more sublime and deeply felt, with one of the most lyrical endings of any of Burton's films. Danny Elfman again provides the songs that feel more like an operetta libretto than merely tent-poles. And it's a good vocal training for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have to carry the load on the next Burton extravaganza.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007) Oscar-bait, pure and simple, for Depp, Bonham Carter and for Burton. Still, after all the musical elements of his films, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Burton could pull off this gruesome Stephen Sondheim musical. Trouble is, what is suggested, and merely stage-craft, safely removed from the audience in the theater piece is made more explicit in Burton's version, with each of the demon-barber's throat-slittings done in grisly close-up and with vast torrents of blood directed camera-ward. Although filmed in color, it might as well have been black and white with the Gorey-esque sets and the limited color pallet--except for the bright red blood. Depp and Bonham-Carter account themselves well with the tricky songs and the supporting cast includes Timothy Spall, Alan Rickman--both naturals for the Burton world--and Sacha Baron Cohen, terrific as an early barbering rival of Sweeney's. Again, when it was announced, eye-brows were raised...but Burton manages to pull off something thought beyond him. At some point, people should start realizing that the guy is for real and, though he's a bit of a "niche" director, not to be pigeon-holed.
So, what's next? Well, though accomplished, the necrotic nut doesn't fall too far from the tree. Will it be a disguised Burton self-portrait, a tale of an odd-ball's revenge, or a project resurrected from the loves of his youth? Hard to say. Burton hasn't fully matured out of his "boy" phase the way Steven Spielberg has. But on the docket are a new stop-motion animation version of "Frankenweenie," (it might be a bit early for Burton to be repeating himself so directly) and a new version of "Alice in Wonderland," which could be properly twisted. Then there's talk of Burton directing a Broadway musical version of "Batman." (Don't laugh. It'll be beaten onto the stage by a musical version of..."Spider-man.") Anyway, one shouldn't express surprise, dismay, or shock at the mention of a new Tim Burton project. More often than he doesn't, he manages to bring out the best in the material while making each one his own.