Tim Burton has now made two movies called Frankenweenie, both about a precocious suburban kid named Victor Frankenstein and the trouble that ensues after he brings his dead dog Sparky back to life.
The first Frankenweenie, from 1984, was Burton’s first real film,1 a 30-minute live-action short starring the kid who went on to play Bastian in The NeverEnding Story, with Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall as his parents. The one that opens today is a full-length 3-D feature starring about 200 lovingly detailed stop-motion puppets and the voices of Burton mainstays like Winona Ryder, Martin Short, and Catherine O’Hara. The Walt Disney Company put up $1 million to make the first one; spooky disembodied/unsourced voices on the Internet claim that the second one, also a Disney picture, cost $85 million.
The first one was set to play in theaters with the re-release of Pinocchio, but after early test screenings went badly (children cried) and the MPAA slapped the film with a PG rating, Burton was fired and the movie was shelved; for years, even Burton didn’t have a copy.2 I saw the new one the other night, at a sneak preview on the Disney lot in Burbank, not far from where Burton grew up. About half the audience seemed to have brought children along, and there were no tears in evidence. In 1984, making a monster movie aimed at kids was a career-derailing act; in 2012, Burton’s reanimated Frankenweenie will trick-or-treat alongside Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman (ghost-witches, zombies) and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania (Frankensteins, mummies, werewolves, the voice of Adam Sandler), both released late last month. Halloween comes earlier every year, demographically and otherwise.
The same pop-macabre tastes that made Burton too dark for Disney in the ’80s went mainstream a long time ago, and you can draw a curving, Burtonesque line from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas to all manner of youth-cultural paraphenomena — Emily the Strange, Hot Topic’s mall-goth retail empire, R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, Gerard Way’s band My Chemical Romance and his comic book, The Umbrella Academy. It’s somehow appropriate that in the new Frankenweenie, Victor — a prototypical Neurotic Boy Outsider in the first one — at least has peers, if not actual friends, including a hunchbacked Igor figure and Weird Girl, voiced by O’Hara, a ghostly voiced scene-stealer with eyes like Titleists.
That’s one interesting thing about the new Frankenweenie. Another interesting thing about the new Frankenweenie is that it’s gorgeous (3-D does human actors no favors, but it does a lot for puppets), and witty, and sweetly morbid. As you might expect from a 90-minute extrapolation of a 30-minute short, it’s slight, but it’s also good — which sets it apart from almost everything Burton’s done since around 1995.
What happened to Burton? How did a gifted visual director whose late-’80s/early-’90s movies coupled a cartoonist’s expressiveness with a deeply humane empathy for the socially dispossessed end up a mere journeyman, trapped in a hollow version of his own aesthetic like Beetlejuice imprisoned in that cardboard town, obliging Hollywood’s bottomless hunger for new shit based on old shit? (Burton hasn’t made a movie from an original screenplay since 1994’s Ed Wood; these days his obsession with re-creating totemic material from his childhood is once again paying off commercially, but not creatively.) And how much of this is Johnny Depp’s fault? Time for a tough-love scroll through one of modern moviemaking’s most depressing IMDb pages.
1. The Rise (I’m a Loner, Dottie — a Rebel)
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
Frankenweenie — or so goes the story — somehow got to Stephen King, who pushed it on a production exec at Warner Bros., who showed it to Paul Reubens. By then Reubens had developed his Pee-Wee Herman character in Los Angeles with The Groundlings and toured with a Pee-Wee stage show. He’d written a Pee-Wee movie with Michael Varhol and Phil Hartman, a fellow Groundlings alum, and was looking for a director. He knew Duvall; Duvall vouched for Burton, and Reubens hired him, and Pee-Wee became the first man-child-yanked-out-of-his-man-childhood in the Burton canon.
More audacious than it gets credit for being, from the opening eight minutes — Reubens alone onscreen, Scotch-taping his face, pouring Mr. T Cereal on Mr. Breakfast, possibly actively trying to annoy adults out of the theater — to the fact that it’s basically a children’s movie about a man consumed by obsession, complete with Hitchcock cues.
Pop culture remembers it for “Tequila.” The moment I remember is the sequence where Simone the waitress’s Bluto-like boyfriend chases Pee-Wee across the path of a Day of the Dead parade, whose dancing skeletons and oversize papier-mâché grown-up heads — a swirling river of everyday terrors — become a lovely visual metaphor for the adult world whose threshold Pee-Wee has reluctantly crossed.
Another unlikely hit, this time with Michael Keaton — although Burton wanted Sammy Davis Jr. before the studio talked him out of it. (Which is too bad — tell me this wouldn’t be just as much of a classic if it was the Candy Man shouting “Nice fuckin’ model!” and honking his dick like Harpo’s horn, and I will tell you you’re wrong.) It’s all a long, slow build to the Dada moment where Keaton’s uncouth bio-exorcist supernaturally weaponizes Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and a table full of shrimp cocktails, but it’s also a fable about art and repression and the way creepy New York art-scene types ruin everything they touch.
Great puppety monster FX. Great other-dimensional set pieces (the afterlife as cosmic DMV!). Great cameo by Dick Cavett, basically playing Dick Cavett. And then, in the middle of a movie determined to laugh at mortality, there’s that beautifully sad scene where the numbnuts decorator summons Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis’s ghost-couple and they begin to rot away in their wedding clothes. It’s basically Burton saying You guys enjoying the movie? Michael Keaton’s hilarious, right? Great. Everyone you love is going to die. Here’s Geena Davis tenderly handing Alec Baldwin back his jawbone.
Historic, at least for me, in that it’s the first movie I can remember comic-book fans being angry about before it was even shot. The guy who made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure directing the guy from Mr. Mom in a Batman movie, with songs by Prince? The Internet would never have let this happen. But you know the rest: Burton’s dark, violent take on the material surprised everybody, the movie went on to gross more than $400 million worldwide, and Burton became an A-list director, a status that came with all kinds of artistically problematic expectations, and one he’s never quite managed to lose.
Keaton’s glib, haunted, twitchy Bruce Wayne is the key to the whole thing — you absolutely buy him as an arrested child simultaneously thrilled and terrified by the idea of letting Kim Basinger into the fortress he’s built to cocoon his trauma. The overgrown-boy-in-the-cave thing is part of the Batman mythos, but Burton, not surprisingly, really runs with it. Plays campier than you remember, especially compared to Christopher Nolan’s stolidly realistic Dark Knight trilogy — Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker is a huge plate of self-parodic ham and cheese, but it’s also an intriguing auteurist road-not-taken for the superhero genre. Free of the obligation to mollify an irascible fan base, Burton made a Tim Burton movie about Batman, one that’s attuned to the resonant oddness of the character in a way that Nolan’s movies never were.
Burton, in a 1991 interview: “It’s about depression and it’s about lack of integration. It’s about a character. Unfortunately, I always see it as being about those things, not about some kind of hero who is saving the city from blah blah blah. If you asked me the plot of Batman, I couldn’t tell you. It’s about duality, it’s about flip-sides, it’s about a person who’s completely fucked and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s got good impulses, but he’s not integrated. And it’s about depression. It’s about going through life, thinking you’re doing something, trying very hard. And the Joker represents somebody who gets to act however he wants.”
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Maybe Burton’s first perfect movie, a deeply personal suburban fairy tale he waved off a second Batman to make; it’s about a man unfinished by his creator (as are we all, yo) whose unfinishedness means he’s both magical and prone to wounding the people he loves. As Edward, Johnny Depp — who spent 1993 hammering away at his teen-idol image in this and John Waters’s Cry Baby — looks a lot like Robert Smith and more than a little like Burton, who made this movie when he was 32, newly married to a painter he’d met in England while shooting Batman, and clearly working out some Neurotic Boy Outsider stuff of his own. The tone is fanciful, but there’s real despair under the candied colors.
Strange data point: Before Burton cast Depp in the title role, he got pretty far down the road with (get this) Tom Cruise, who dropped out when Burton refused to butch Edward up.” I thought that was a little odd,” Burton told an interviewer in 1991. “I didn’t think it was worth writing a scene where Edward goes to a bar with a bunch of guys and ogles the babes! Or scores with the chicks! Or we see him watching a Raiders game!”
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Not underrated, exactly, but definitely misunderstood. Burton returns to Gotham despite not having much more to say about Batman and ends up making one of the oddest superhero movies of all time; its sympathies clearly lie with Catwoman (a brilliant and boldly physical Michelle Pfeiffer) and Danny DeVito’s sewer-mutant Penguin,3 and for long stretches the movie seems to forget about Batman entirely. The pacing is gloopy; you can tell Burton’s reluctant to set in motion the traditional movie-narrative machinery that requires that his villains be vanquished and destroyed. But even as it falls apart on a basic storytelling level it becomes more psychologically coherent as the kind of rough-trade dream you imagine Batman having when he’s tired and horny. Plus, Christopher Walken in a frosted wig! Grossed $162 million, a disappointment in light of the first movie’s success; Burton (who’d been thinking about making a Catwoman movie next) reportedly contemplated quitting movies to paint full-time.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Technically not a Burton movie (busy finishing Batman Returns and prepping Ed Wood, he handed the project off to animator Henry Selick), but based on a story and characters he’d come up with back in the ’80s, at Disney, when he was grinding it out sweatshop-style on The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. Totally Burton on a thematic level, too — Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown who hijacks Christmas and stuffs stockings with shrunken heads, is a frustrated artist who doesn’t understand why people find his stuff too dark.4 Arguably the best straight-up movie musical of the ’90s,5 and arguably the one Burton movie that’ll still be making new fans 20 years from now, provided society keeps making new Goths.
ED WOOD (1994)
This biopic of the worst director ever was Burton’s lowest-grossing film, and OK, fine, I know I’m outing myself as a snob by claiming the black-and-white flop as my favorite — but that’s what’s up. C’mon, in what way is this ode to the poetry in horror and schlock (and the near-psychotic level of self-belief/obliviousness it takes to get a film made) not his best movie? Martin Landau won the Oscar for his irascible, profanity-spewing, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi, a husk of old Hollywood whom Ed discovers holed up in a Baldwin Hills lair, petting his Yorkies, drinking formaldehyde, and cursing that hack Boris Karloff; cinematographer Stefan Czapsky should have won, too. Depp gives his last good performance in a Burton film, although he’s already edging into novelty-teeth caricature; it’s the rest of the cast that makes it work, particularly Bill Murray as would-be-transsexual “Bunny” Breckinridge. This was after Groundhog Day, but years before Murray’s rediscovery as a character actor (Rushmore, Lost in Translation, etc.); watch the way he answers the preacher’s question here …
… and his excellent dramatic-pause placement here:
It’s Burton’s first movie about adults,6 and adult sexuality, a topic around which he’s generally pretty skittish. It’s also his divorce movie, kind of. Ed breaks up with Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), who tells him, “This isn’t the real world — you’ve surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos,” then finds new love with Kathy (Patricia Arquette), who accepts him for the cross-dressing hetero weirdo he is. In real life, Burton’s four-year marriage had ended, and he’d taken up with the statuesque Lisa Marie, who’s in Ed Wood as Vampira. Did Burton (never a critical whipping boy, but not exactly a darling, either) see a little of himself in Wood? There’s something merciful about the way the story cuts off after Wood makes his schlock opus Plan 9 From Outer Space, relegating the director’s subsequent “slow descent into alcoholism and monster nudie films” to a title card at the end.
CABIN BOY (1994)
There’s an argument to be made that, having produced this movie (written and directed by Adam Resnick), Tim Burton gets to do whatever he wants from now on. I’m not making that argument, but I’m not not making it.
2. The Fall (Robert Wagner on Fire)
MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
On down the entertainment food chain, from comic books to D-movie horror to bubble gum cards — specifically, the goriest bubble gum cards ever, a Topps alien-invasion scenario serialized in vignettes of savage specificity (“Destroying a Dog,” “Unspeakable Experiments”, etc.) by troubled-genius artist Wally Wood, who before killing himself in 1981 said, “If I had it all to do over again, I’d cut off my hands.” The stampede of flaming cattle that opens the film is Wood’s; nothing in the rest of the movie is anywhere near as striking, but it works well enough as a tribute to Irwin Allen’s schlocky, star-studded ’70s destruction-pageants. Burton, to Premiere, 1997: “I just thought it would be fun to see big stars getting blown away … I remember seeing Robert Wagner on fire in The Towering Inferno. I didn’t expect Robert Wagner to be on fire. It’s kind of cathartic in a way.” Hence, I guess, the appearance here of Sarah Jessica Parker’s severed head in a jar, screaming at the Chihuahua-headed abomination the invaders have made of her body. With an all-star cast from outside Burton’s usual repertory, including Pierce Brosnan basically playing Will Magnus and Jack Nicholson in rhinestone-cowboy duds trading lines with Jim Brown; cost around $100 million and made back less than half that, even after Burton knuckled under to studio pressure and used CGI Martians instead of puppets.
SUPERMAN LIVES (unfilmed, circa 1997-1998)
Burton spent a year prepping a Superman reboot, with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel, for producer Jon Peters. Sets were built, locations were scouted, troublingly Starlight Express–like costumes were tested, but the script never came together and Burton ended up dropping out. Based on the stories Kevin Smith (one of the many writers who took a crack at the project) tells here about Peters’s vision for the project, it seems like Burton dodged a speeding bullet, but look at this and tell me you don’t still kind of wish Tim Burton’s Laser-Suit Spider-Fighting Receding-Hairline Superman existed:
SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
Mixed 21st-century action-movie production values and 19th-century literary source material to goofy effect waaaay before Sherlock Holmes, that movie where John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe: Murder Detective, or the Burton-produced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter — for whatever that’s worth. Lisa Marie plays Burton’s mom, in our first glimpse of Burton’s somewhat creepy tendency to cast his paramours as mothers and/or children (see also: Helena Bonham Carter as an 8-year-old girl in Big Fish — ick). Depp plays Ichabod Crane as a fainting nancy-boy, an interesting choice that turns out to not be that interesting. Written by Se7en‘s Andrew Kevin Walker, punched up by Tom fucking Stoppard, shot in, like, Old Soundstagefordshire Forest, England, or whatever. I’ll be honest: I saw this in the theater when it came out and then rewatched it five days ago and I still don’t remember anything about it.
PLANET OF THE APES (2001)
Neither the most enjoyably bad Planet of the Apes movie (that’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes, where the apes travel to ’70s L.A. and get heavy into shopping and champagne) nor the best bad movie in the Mark Wahlberg Can’t Believe This Is Happening genre (that would be The Happening). You can see why Burton was attracted to the material — the original films are pop-schlock classics — and why the studio thought this was a slam dunk. But there’s very little of him in it, which in a way makes it his most dispiriting bad movie, a generic action reboot that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would eventually and inevitably erase from the canon. Tim Roth turned down the Alan Rickman part in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — and, by extension, a bazillion dollars down the road — to play General Thade, a chimpanzee who’s super-racist against humans. (From the Planet of the Apes “Ape Scrolls” Wiki page: “Any means justified the ends to Thade.” Wait, what?)
BIG FISH (2003)
Billy Crudup struggles to reconcile with his dying father (Albert Finney), whose tall tales about his life as a younger man (Ewan McGregor, digitally Botoxed) unfold in zany-wistful flashbacks. Burton cast Marion Cotillard as Billy Crudup’s pregnant French wife, years before she won the Oscar for La Vie En Rose or broke through in English-language films, so that’s something; watch closely, and you’ll also spot an 8-year-old Miley Cyrus, billed here as “Destiny Cyrus,” her given name. This is a film I hate to hate. Burton had just lost his own father when he inherited this project from Steven Spielberg; there’s clearly real feeling behind the movie, and it’s interesting to watch Burton try to tone it down in the quiet, mournful contemporary sequences, but seriously, the only thing worse than magical realism is Southern-Gothic magical realism.
CORPSE BRIDE (2005)
Google Image search results for “corpse bride tattoo”: about 392,000. Who am I to argue with that as a cultural referendum?
3. THE FALL (CONTINUED)
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
Hey, here’s a question: When, exactly, are we as a society going to review Johnny Depp’s membership in the One Of Our Finest Actors club? He’s probably a chill bro to split a bottle of red wine and a carton of cigarettes with, and Rango is the best American Western of the last decade that isn’t Deadwood, but come on — when he’s not taking pirate-booty gigs far beneath a man who already owns a fucking private island or sleepwalking through classy dreck like The Tourist or sewing fresh neck bolts onto the corpus of Hunter S. Thompson, he’s donning funny hats and goon wigs in bad movie after bad movie for Burton, channeling Brando’s perversion through Jerry Lewis’s good taste. At this point his collaboration with Burton post–Ed Wood is such a study in diminishing returns that the only logical next step for them is a 3-D adaptation of Zeno’s paradox with Depp as the voice of the arrow.
Of these three, Sweeney has the slight edge,7 I guess, although you wonder what Jack White might have done with the lead; I saw Charlie in IMAX and I remember it as being about pancake makeup. Alice made a billion dollars worldwide — a billion dollars — but aside from the occasional flash of half-assed subversion (the Red Queen’s castle looks like an evil version of the one from Sleeping Beauty, better known as the Walt Disney Pictures logo) it’s one long teal-and-orange slog through Lewis Carroll’s story points, with Bonham Carter as a shrieking bobblehead and Burtonian atmosphere that feels clicked into place with a mouse.
Plus, at the end, this happens. Never forget.
DARK SHADOWS (2012)
The cult late-’60s horror soap opera, re-vamped (sorry) as Burton’s first comedy since Mars Attacks! Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) awakens in 1972, where he’s befuddled by paved roads, waffles, Scooby-Doo, and lava lamps. Wears out its welcome long before the last Super Sounds of the ’70s needle-drop and captures the torpor of daytime-drama pacing a little too well, but at least the period setting feels lived-in — it’s Burton dredging up one more beloved piece of junk from the childhood rec room of his brain and drowning it in overbearing production design, but it feels less precious, less hermetic, less like the product of a Wonka-factory clean-room than anything he’s done in years. Decent cast, too — Bonham Carter as a boozy shrink, Jonny Lee Miller with a comb-over, and (especially) Eva Green as the rapacious witch Angelique.