Tim Burton: "An Exploration into the Mind and Movies of a Gothic Visionary"
Written by Joseph Banham
Tim Burton may well be one of the most beloved and unique filmmakers of his generation; there are few other directors whose cinematic style is as instantly recognisable as that of the Burbank-born artist. The visual artistry and recurring motifs throughout his stories have struck a chord with many of the public, leading to him becoming one of the most well known and revered film-industry figures in popular culture. The best of Burton, in my opinion, are the films which empathise with the outcasts, the social misfits, the films which celebrate the odd and unusual; films which showcase a playful rebellious spirit against what is considered the norm. It is no wonder why Burton has amassed such an adoring cult following throughout his career, especially among younger viewers, exploring ideas and characters such as this. Here is a brief (or at least as brief as I can make it) overview of some of the films that I believe make his work a key piece of modern cinema.
Early life and career: Drawing Roadkill at the House of Mouse
Burton’s childhood would go on to have a great impact on the stories he would later wish to tell. Born and raised in suburban Burbank, California, Burton acquired a love for cinema from an early age: in particular monster movies, the work of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, and Vincent Price. The influence from all of these can clearly be seen shining through all of the work he would later create. After impressing the Disney studio with a short he animated at the California Institute of Arts entitled “Stalk of the Celery Monster”, he was chosen to work as an animator for the studio.
Burton’s time at disney is well documented in interviews he has done. In short, he hated it. His gleefully crude style of drawing didn’t match the company’s cute and clean image. His shy and introverted personality was a mismatch for the studio’s ethos, and lead to him being a recluse in his office hiding in his closet or under his desk. He was originally assigned to work on the studio’s feature “The Fox and the Hound” (1981), but was taken off the project after his drawings didn’t fit in with the rest of the artwork. He later described his drawings of foxes in the book “Burton on Burton” (2005) in his own words as looking “like road kills”.
Burton’s time at Disney is demonstrative of a frustrated artist; he had an established voice and a style, but was struggling to find somewhere that would accept that voice and allow him to express himself to the fullest. The degree to which he felt separated from everyone would later shape the ideologies of his work.
Eventually the studio allowed him to make his first notable work- “Vincent” (1982), a 5 minute, black-and-white stop-motion film that really shows Burton being Burton. The film is about a mild-mannered young boy who secretly wishes he was Vincent Price- performing hideous experiments on the family dog and dipping unsuspecting relatives into hot wax. Within its short running time the film embraces everything that made up the young Burton, and acts as an interesting prelude to what was to come.
Early Filmography: Modern Monsters, Unlikely Heroes and Fast Food Controversy
Two of the most notable works in Burton’s early filmography are “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). In both of these films Burton crafts a very similar atmosphere, one that exudes the feel of a modern gothic fairytale; examining the uncomfortable mix of fantasy elements with the “real” world. This is a blending of worlds that Burton would visit time and time again. The premise of “Beetlejuice” is a fun one: a newly deceased couple seek out the help of a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” to get rid of the pretentious Deetz family moving into their house. Burton allows his macabre sense of humour to run riot, with Michael Keaton’s sleazy spectre Beetlejuice (or Betelgeuse as it’s actually spelt in the film) being a gruesome joy to watch; at times hilarious and at other times a genuinely threatening presence. But it is the Deetz’s gothic daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) whom I feel Burton feels the closest resemblance to as a character; disillusioned by the ordinary world and holding an overt interest in the supernatural. The film doesn’t fail to drift into more serious territory during its delirious, ghoulish antics; one scene sees the sorrowful Lydia Deetz tearfully write a suicide note to a world she feels doesn’t understand or care for her. Even though the scene is shrouded in the darkly humorous tone of the film, it still manages to be sincere and could possibly reflect Burton’s own feelings as a teenager of being “utterly alone”.
“Beetlejuice” strikes a slightly odd tone; the fun and imaginative portrayal of the afterlife no doubt appeals to kids, whilst at the same time the profane and uncouth titular character pushes the film towards more mature audiences (the film was actually rated a 15 by the BBFC over here in the UK, despite being constantly broadcast on television during daytime hours in family slots, albeit edited.)
Whilst I’m on the subject, this wasn’t the only time the director’s grim sensibility clashed with the family-friendly crowd. Burton’s debut feature “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985), the first feature length outing of Paul Reuben’s child-at-heart character, featured similarly traumatising moments for young viewers; the most notorious being the creepy truck driver “Large Marge” (just Google it if you’re curious, it’s a pretty famous clip). Then there was of course the fiasco in the early 90’s with the McDonald's happy-meal toy tie-in with “Batman Returns” (1992). The fast food company had not actually seen any of the finished film when they agreed to produce a line of toys to be sold with Happy Meals aimed at very young children; something they would soon come to regret. It wasn’t long before they were inundated with complaints from parents who felt that they were enticing their children to see a film which, with its disturbing scenes and ample gore, was far from suitable. It’s worth mentioning that with “Batman Returns” Burton was given a lot more creative freedom by Warner Bros. than he was on the predecessor, and it certainly shows; “Returns” is undoubtedly more Burtonesque than the dark knight’s first outing.
“Edward Scissorhands” (1990) is one of the best examples of the director championing an outcast. Taking notes from the monster movies he loved as a child, most evidently the story of “Frankenstein”, Burton brought audiences his own original tale of an unfinished creation (Johnny Depp) by an eccentric scientist (Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price, in the last role he filmed before he died), who is left alone in the laboratory after his creator dies, still with sharp mechanical razors left for fingers. He is discovered by the well-meaning saleswoman Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) and brought back to her house where she tries to ingratiate him into her peaceful suburban society. Of course, this leads the way to many fish-out-of-water scenes, in which the innocent Edward tries as best he can to feel accepted by the townsfolk, many of whom either exploit his gifts for hedge-trimming and hair-dressing, or just view him as a freak.
The portrayal of suburban life in “Edward Scissorhands” introduces an important aspect of Tim Burton’s work, one which screams out in an anarchic voice. He often illustrates suburban life in a very colourful and picturesque way, as a utopian world with bright and symmetrical shot compositions. Throughout the films however this pleasant facade is slowly lifted as it is revealed its inhabitants are morally corrupt and more sinister than the weirdos that they fear so much. This is not a new idea; the whole “it is us who are the real monsters” message has existed as long as there have been monster movies, but Burton’s talent for cinematic storytelling has found a way to present an updated version of this message in the modern world. It is the protagonists of his worlds that are conveyed in dark and monochrome colour: from Edward’s abandoned mansion; to Victor Van Dort’s land of the living in “Corpse Bride” (2005); and even to the Bucket family’s poverty-stricken home in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005). These characters are not presented as traditional heroes, which is entirely the point. They are the pitiful outsiders that rise up and triumph against a world that oppresses them.
Ed Wood and Jack Skellington: Hopeless dreamers
It’s pretty hard for me to write a feature on Tim Burton and not talk about two of my favourite films of all time: “Ed Wood” (1994) and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). The modest budget of “Ed Wood” and (unfortunately) poor box office returns often leads to its reputation among Burton’s body of work to be somewhat diminished. This is a great shame as I think it really deserves to be one of the most well-known and celebrated. The film is a biopic set in the 1950’s of the over-zealous filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. (portrayed by Johnny Depp), whom many consider to be one of the worst film directors of all time. The film is shot in beautiful black-and-white to emanate the essence of the sci-fi horror movies the young cross-dressing director was known for making. The film takes a sympathetic view on Ed Wood as someone with an effused passion about filmmaking who just wanted the respect of his peers. His naive ineptitude is not shown to be a product of laziness or cynicism, but simply a result of his relentlessly forgiving attitude and kinetic energy. Like Tim Burton in his early career, Ed Wood is an artist who feels trapped by a society that doesn’t have faith in him, struggling to breakout and find an audience that admires his unconventional creations. The film is endlessly endearing and is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the movie-making business.
Equally clueless about the trouble his childlike enthusiasm is causing is Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. First of all I should address the elephant in the room that the more film-savvy readers have no doubt spotted: yes I realise that “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”, as is the full title, wasn’t actually directed by Tim Burton, but was in fact directed by stop-motion virtuoso Henry Selick. The story and characters all came from Burton in a poem he wrote, as well as acting as producer, so as far as I’m concerned it counts. The delightful story involves the king of Halloween becoming discontented with his own holiday and so he decides to put on his own morbid version of Christmas in a lovingly made animated-musical spectacle. Just like Ed Wood, Jack (voiced by Chris Sarandon, as well as composer Danny Elfman as his singing voice), is a wide eyed dreamer blinded by his own overwhelming sense of ambition. Like the other non-conformist archetypes that populate Burton’s imagination, he is draped in dark colours and surrounded by the similarly sinister looking but well meaning inhabitants of Halloweentown; characters who would be perceived as hideous monsters by the outside world but actually have caring relationships amongst themselves. Burton has often spoken of his love for stop-motion animation, due to the realness of it; unlike other forms of animation, stop-motion is dealing with puppets that actually exist in three-dimensional space. This form of animation is congenial to the auteur’s visual style; the hand-made sets and delicate animation goes hand in hand with his quirky and surreal ideas- much more than the immaculate smoothness of CGI.
Both Ed Wood and Jack Skellington are celebrations of the misunderstood visionaries who wanted more than what was given to them in life. It’s their fearless perseverance through the adversaries and obstacles around them which allow them to remain so likeable.
Looking to the Future: Adaptations and Reboots
This was just a quick look at what makes Tim Burton stand out and create such a big splash in the sea of popular culture. Yet I am still just scratching the surface; I have mainly just focused on his early career (which admittedly, in my opinion at least, was when he was at his best). Lately the director’s films have become much more hit and miss for me; I loved “Frankenweenie” (2012) and “Big Eyes” (2014) , but was bitterly disappointed with “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), and “Dark Shadows” (2012) left me indifferent. This implies that maybe he is at his best when working on his own ideas or original works, rather than on adaptations of existing television shows, books or remakes. Future projects in the pipeline mostly consist of adaptations: he is producing a sequel to the “Alice in Wonderland” reboot (or should that be “Underland” as it was regrettably called); he will direct a screen version of Ransom Rigg’s dark children’s novel “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2011); and also, possibly the most unusual, a live-action remake of “Dumbo” (1941), which seems like a very odd fit (then again the original Disney animation had its fair share of surreal twisted imagery- “Pink Elephants on Parade” for example.)
When Tim Burton does hit, he hits big. Some of the aforementioned films in this article are among my most adored films and were highly influential in my love of cinema. The running themes and characters, which are then amplified by his unique visual finesse, speak to audiences in a deeply personal way. They all have the mark of their creator flowing through them; embracing the solitary and unusual souls of the earth, showing them rise up against a conformist universe and let their voice be heard,- something that mirrors Burton’s own success story. Through his own career and the stories he chooses to tell the message is clear: the world belongs to the oddballs.