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‘Dumbo’ Flopped, but Tim Burton’s Movies Will Live Forever

The brilliant stylist behind ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Ed Wood’ has been in a creative funk. How did such a vital filmmaker slide into such a malaise?

Ringer illustration

In 1982, there were two important short films made in thrall to the persona of Vincent Price, the elegantly campy character actor whose pencil-thin mustache and exquisitely sinister voice made him a B-movie staple of the 1960s and beyond. One was John Landis’s extended, elaborate promotional video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which nodded to the iconography of zombie movies and was topped off by an endearingly cheesy guest-rap by Price, who was reportedly convinced to get into the recording booth by Peggy Lipton.

Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world, and the success of “Thriller” introduced Price’s rich, quavering cadences to a new generation of fans, but the actor was more enthusiastic about his participation in a much more modest venture by an upstart artist: Vincent, a morbidly funny six-minute stop-motion Disney horror film about a lonely 7-year-old boy who harbors secretly evil fantasies. “For a boy his age he’s kind and nice, but he wants to be just like Vincent Price.” (Price called the movie the “most gratifying thing that ever happened [to me].”)

With its long, inky shadows; skewed, canted camera angles; and stylized sense of menace, Vincent was basically German Expressionism for kids, and it marked the emergence of its director, a 24-year-old animator named Tim Burton, as a skilled, eccentric original: a gifted visual storyteller with an eye for Edward Gorey–ish grotesquerie.

As ghoulishly adorable as Vincent is when imitating Price’s arch posture and experimenting with his zombie dog (in a scene deliberately patterned after James Whale’s original Frankenstein), he gradually plunges into a delusional fugue: The film’s ending is dark stuff for something ostensibly made for children. That tension between a playful, wide-eyed reverence for film history—an attempt to live up to the director’s midnight-movie idols, if not literally become them—and an inability to always distinguish homage from overkill would play out time and again throughout Burton’s career, which is probably more lopsided than any other major American director of his generation.

No less than David Lynch or Steven Spielberg (whose styles and temperaments he hybridizes), Burton belongs in the category of auteur-as-adjectival self-descriptor: Whether they’re fans or detractors, most viewers know what it means to assess an aesthetic as Burton-esque. But even if the director has remained consistent in terms of giving his films an unmistakable look and atmosphere (even in the midst of inheritors and imitators) their quality has unmistakably declined—a long, precipitous fall from grace culminating in the release of a critically panned remake of Dumbo. The mystery is locating the cutoff point for when a rich, distinctive brand of mainstream moviemaking artistry—distinctive enough, in fact, that it arguably moved the goal posts of the mainstream in a few cases—mutated irrevocably into pricey, enervating shtick.

It’s easy enough to see Vincent’s burgeoning mad scientist as a self-portrait of the artist, and Burton played with the archetype again in 1984’s Frankenweenie, a 30-minute, live-action comedy centering once again on an underage inventor mourning the death of his beloved dog and devising a pseudoscientific resurrection. Even more than its predecessor, Frankenweenie seemed too baroquely menacing for young audiences, and Disney opted not to screen it alongside their theatrical rereleases of The Jungle Book and Pinocchio. Burton was subsequently fired, and the symbolism of his exile from Disney was rich. Whatever he was destined to make as a feature filmmaker, it wasn’t kid stuff.

Or at least, not precisely. At 26, Burton was hired by Paul Reubens—riding the success of his half-parodic, half-precious, wholly bizarre HBO special The Pee-Wee Herman Show—to direct a feature film based on the adventures of the bowtied manchild. In a conversation with Paul Rudd for Interview in 2009, Reubens recounted warring with Warner Bros. over their choice of a director and hearing about Frankenweenie from his friend Shelley Duvall, who suggested Burton could be a better fit. “When I screened the short film the next day, I knew in the first six shots that I wanted [Burton] to do it,” he said. “It was absolutely incredible. It was the biggest piece of luck early on in my career that I could have had. We were completely simpatico.”

Certainly, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is the work of a director and a star working on the same arcane wavelength, with Burton subordinating the gothicness of his shorts in honor of Reubens’s preferred technicolor aesthetic. On a script level, the film is slyly hilarious, riffing on the plot of the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves as well as American road-movie staples like Easy Rider as Pee-Wee ventures cross-country to recover his beloved, bespoke two-wheeler. The campy comic tone and weirdly insinuating, infantile sense of humor belongs to Reubens, whose point seemed to be that Pee-Wee’s arrested development was a state of grace. What Burton brought to the table was an ability to stylize everything on screen—from meticulously art-directed interiors to flat West Texas landscapes to the actors themselves—into three-dimensional cartoons. Essentially an American picaresque that uses its hero to explore and reflect aspects of the national character, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is charming and slight, but occasionally Burton’s affinity for horror shines through, as in the episode with the trucker known as Large Marge (Alice Nunn); for many preteens lured to the multiplex, the scene was their introduction to the black art of the jump scare.

A box office hit, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was also critically acclaimed, including by Pauline Kael, who deemed it “a parody of kitsch and a celebration of it” while praising Burton’s visual flair, which belied the film’s modest budget. Following the film’s release, Burton expressed an interest in making a film version of Batman and began working on a screenplay with screenwriter Sam Hamm. In what some have interpreted as an attempt to make the young director prove his worth, Warners handed him another project in the meantime: Beetlejuice, a demented slapstick comedy about a “bio-exorcist” hired by recently deceased newlyweds to terrorize their home’s new owners—an ingenious reversal of the haunted-house genre steeped in metaphysics and mythology. The original script by Michael McDowell was also flagrantly vicious, so Burton and writer Warren Skaaren worked to tone it down without fully dulling its serrated edges; their best guarantee against blandness was the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role, whose interpretation of the title character as a scuzzy one-liner machine—a cross between an improv comic and a Times Square pervert—was what helped send the material over the top where it belonged.

It’s a compliment to Beetlejuice to call it unhinged: The difficulty in reconciling the doe-eyed sweetness of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis with Winona Ryder’s moody teen act with Keaton’s mugging is in line with the discombobulating absurdity of the premise, and every five minutes or so, Burton unleashes a sight gag (like an undead secretary exhaling cigarette smoke through a tracheotomy scar) that lodges in the subconscious forever. Few 1980s studio movies can match Beetlejuice’s unbridled surrealism, but viewers went for it anyway, which meant that Batman was a go.

In retrospect, the anxiety of a major studio over financing an expensive comic book adaptation is funny stuff, but hindsight is 20/20 and Burton saw the future, even if his visible inspirations were rooted in the past. The virtues of Batman and Batman Returns are their immersive, ingenious production design—an anachronistic mash-up of spiraling, Byzantine architecture and tech-noir gadgetry—as well the emphasis they placed on their villains, probably the films’ only significant link to the 1960s television series. In Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is basically a less supernatural and even more malevolent version of Betelgeuse, fixing the audience with a complicitous grin while he defaces priceless works of art. Batman Returns, meanwhile, offers up three indelible nasties at the same time: Danny DeVito’s feral, carnivorous Penguin; Michelle Pfeiffer’s carnal Catwoman; and Christopher Walken’s dead-eyed Donald Trump manque Max Shreck, a contender for the most entertainingly hateful figure in superhero movie history. (“One can never have too much power … if my life has a meaning, that’s the meaning.”)

One by-product of Burton’s fondness for (and facility with) bad guys is that Batman himself takes a bit of a back seat in his own franchise—a pattern weirdly replicated over a decade later in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise, which tried to stake out more realistic territory, at least partially in an attempt to distance itself from Burton’s vision. The difference between the two approaches can be summed up in the contrast between the scene in Batman where the Joker immolates an underworld rival with a gimmicked joy buzzer and the bit in The Dark Knight featuring the disappearing pencil wielded by Heath Ledger. Nolan’s carefully edited sequence is at once more grimly sadistic and less visually satisfying than Burton’s cartoonish electrocution, one of several moments in Batman where he comes close to violating the PG-13 rating bestowed by the MPAA; at the same time, that smoldering corpse has a mischievous picture-book quality to it that suggests a kid giggling while he gets away with being naughty.

The first phase of Burton’s career was defined by his collaborations with two actors: Keaton, whose stints in the Batsuit were largely exercises in self-effacement, ceding the movies to his costars, and Johnny Depp, whose slightly off-kilter sweetness proved crucial in the director’s two finest films. In both Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Depp embodied a psychologically fragile outsider whose oddness made him the target of mockery—to conformist suburbanites in Edward Scissorhands, a contemporary fairy tale with an Aesopian moral about celebrating difference, and to movie-industry snobs in Ed Wood, a biopic about the consensus “worst filmmaker of all time” that reveled in Wood’s ineptitude while hinting that he may also have been a visionary.

In truth, both are movies about vanguard artists struggling to express themselves: Edward’s array of hedge animals and ice sculptures are spontaneous creations embraced as a form of outsider art, and the character’s brilliantly suggestive costume and physical appearance—a slightly kinky, full-body leather getup for maximum ’50s–Wild One–biker gang resonance plus a Robert Smith hairdo and those Freddy Krueger fingers—also added up to a funhouse mirror image of Burton himself. To make things even more self-reflexive, Edward’s creator is played by Vincent Price, cinching the intertextual link between Burton, his alter ego, and his hero for all time.

This same subtext runs through Ed Wood, which both sanitizes and idealizes its subject’s personal life and professional output in the service of a tidy but irresistible message about the thin line separating genius from folly. In Edward Scissorhands, Depp did a tremulous shy-heartthrob riff, acting more with his eyes than via dialogue; in Ed Wood, he’s more animated and considerably more entertaining, cultivating a similar sense of innocence shot through with a little tingle of showbiz hard-sell. Shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black and white, the film is skillfully scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and brilliantly cast (with Martin Landau copping a well-deserved Oscar for playing a fading, heroin-addicted Bela Lugosi). It peaks with a fully imagined—and yet, on some primal level, authentic-feelingencounter between Wood and Orson Welles, Hollywood’s greatest wunderkind and most enduring punch line commiserating about the difficulties of making cinema on your own terms.

Visually accomplished, effectively empathetic, and eccentric around its crisply chiaroscuro edges, Ed Wood felt at the time like Burton’s crowning achievement, and maybe a sign of arty-yet-accessible dramas to come. Its mediocre box office performance was shrugged off as a by-product of a highly successful filmmaker indulging his own fetishes—not a bad thing in the era of Quentin Tarantino. The niche appeal was a sign of integrity. Around the same time that Ed Wood was struggling to find an audience, The Nightmare Before Christmas—a stop-motion musical conceived and produced by Burton and directed by Henry Selick—connected with a mass audience, suggesting that even without Batman, the director’s brand was bankable (in a heroic gesture, Burton also produced Adam Resnick’s mighty Cabin Boy, which he originally was set to direct).

The turning point for Burton’s industry profile—and, I’d say, for his career as a whole—was 1996’s Mars Attacks!, a star-studded tribute to 1950s sci-fi movies based on a line of trading cards and released in the wake of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Deeply sarcastic where ID4 was more or less straight-faced, Mars Attacks! attempted to hybridize apocalyptic, Strangelove-ian satire with the morbid grandeur of ’70s disaster movies like The Towering Inferno where audiences cheered the expectedly “unexpected” deaths of above-the-title stars; like Beetlejuice and Batman Returns, its nastiness was unmistakable and bracing.

Originally, Burton had planned to use stop-motion special effects to represent the skeletal Martian invaders but was persuaded in the end to use computer special effects—a sign, perhaps, of how far he had strayed from his handmade roots, as well as a harbinger of CGI atrocities to come in his own work. Mars Attacks! is still ferociously tasteless in places—a blockbuster that the real Ed Wood would have loved—and yet it’s also wildly undisciplined, its sprawling ensemble (including Jack Nicholson in a showy dual role) exemplifying a lack of focus in comparison to the intimate, focused point of view of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

Since Mars Attacks! Burton’s output has varied wildly in quality, although the stretch between 1999’s lush, overproduced Sleepy Hollow and 2007’s deluxe adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street contained movies at least worth arguing about: if not the obviously compromised and ludicrous Planet of the Apes (taken on after it was dropped by Peter Jackson, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, and the Hughes brothers), then certainly the sentimental literary adaptation Big Fish—a compendium of tall tales temperamentally suited to Burton’s tastes—or Corpse Bride, a gorgeously animated stop-motion romance co-directed by Mike Johnson and tailored to Burton’s then-partner Helena Bonham Carter, who voiced the tragic phantom of the title.

If it’s possible to draw a dividing line between the good and bad movies Burton has made on the other side of the millennium, I’d say it has to do with tone. The hyperbolic whimsy of his kid-lit adaptations—Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass—is fatal when yoked to grandiose budgets and an over-acting Johnny Depp; conversely, in a film like Sweeney Todd, with its core of operatic melancholy and fully realized, R-rated cruelty, the director seems at home. But Sweeney Todd was more than a decade ago, and the run of movies that followed has been abject: not only the obnoxiously hyperactive and unwatchable Alice films, but also the superfluous Goth-soap-opera reboot Dark Shadows, a feature-length version of Frankenweenie, and Big Eyes, about the painter Margaret Keane. In these films, we see the fine line between consistency and self-plagiarism, with Dark Shadows as a kitschy genre tribute à la Mars Attacks!, Big Eyes as a biopic twin to Ed Wood, and Frankenweenie as the ultimate in self-indulgence—an expensive revision of a 30-year-old short whose excellence was rooted in its thrifty innovation.

The narrative that saw Burton go from earnestly interrogating his outsider mentality to simply recapitulating it in endless yet depressingly repetitive variations is not new: It’s the same story as those of Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and other hell-raising auteurs whose inspiration has waned with age. And yet Burton’s late-career résumé still includes one item that functions as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card—the decision of his 2010 Cannes Jury to award the Palme D’Or to the brilliant Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It may be that the lovingly lo-fi costumes and special effects of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives set off something nostalgic in a director who can recall his past life as a great entertainer even if he can’t quite recapture it. Whatever the reason, Burton’s insistence on spotlighting an obscure but worthy artist—and helping to put him on the map of global film culture—was a heroic gesture.