For over twenty years, Tim Burton has enthralled audiences with quirky tales and eccentric outsiders. With the release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has all the ingredients to become this summer’s big hitter, we look back at Burton ‘s worlds of seasonal japes, capes, and damn dirty apes.
Hollywood has literally lost the plot. With sequels and remakes dominating the summer schedules (even Herbie is taking another spin) it was no surprise that Warner Brothers looked for safe hands when they gave Tim Burton the golden ticket to direct the remake of cult 1970s flick, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Calling the popular Mel Stuart version “sappy”, Burton has promised that his Chocolate won’t be so sweet.
Born in Burbank, California, Burton was always a child of Hollywood and started his career at Disney, although his unique style was at odds with the Disney mould. Burton later commented that his animals looked more like “road kills”, but the studio indulged his talents regardless, and he made two shorts during his time there, Vincent (an affectionate tribute to his childhood idol, Vincent Price) and Frankenweenie. The latter led to his first full-length debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), whose comic strip irreverence marked Burton as the immediate choice for Beetlejuice (1988), a black comedy whose cartoon visuals blended Dali and Caligari while the box office returns convinced Warner Brothers to hand him the reins to the lucrative Batman franchise. Released in 1989, Batman was more than just a film, it was an event.
With its monolithic skyscrapers sprawling amid a perpetual darkness, Burton’s Batman set the standards for comic-book adaptations and captured an urban decay not seen since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Although Burton would later bemoan the pressures of studio interference, the commercial and critical success of Batman cemented his status in Hollywood, allowing him to work with big budgets on personal projects.
While he could have honed his blockbuster mantle, Burton chose instead to make Edward Scissorhands(1990), a modern-day fairytale about a sharp-fingered misfit inspired by a sketch from his Disney days. The film made a star of the young Johnny Depp and turned the reluctant Burton into Hollywood ‘s latest wunderkind. Burton negotiated creative control for Batman Returns, but the film was considered “too dark” for children and despite healthy returns, it signalled the end of Burton’s creative involvement. Instead, camp crusader Joel Schumacher consigned the franchise to blockbuster hell by re-instating the much-maligned Robin.
Burton has always occupied a curious place within the industry, and while his maverick approach leaves studio executives sweating, it is his skewed visions that they exploit in the name of promotion. From misunderstood outsiders to contorted landscapes, Burton ‘s signature ‘cartoon gothic’ style has become a brand product, best embodied in Disney’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a seasonal musical fantasy penned and produced by Burton. The first feature-length film to employ stop-motion animation, it has become a goth-chic merchandising phenomenon, spawning endless stickers, dolls, notebooks and lunchboxes.
Stripped of Burton’s visual excesses and shot entirely in black and white, Ed Wood (1994), a biopic of the “worst director of all time” is the highlight of Burton’s hotchpotch résumé. Depp is outstanding as the titular film-maker and there is genuine affection for the B-movies that inspired the young Burton. Mars Attacks!(1996), a riotous pastiche of the alien-invasion blockbuster, followed, and despite a disastrous hiatus working on the aborted Superman Lives film, Sleepy Hollow (1999) saw a return to form, reuniting Burton with Depp for the third time.
While Planet of the Apes left audiences left short-changed, it remains Burton ‘s most commercially successful film to date, proving that blockbuster films are increasingly critic-proof. At the suggestion of an Apes sequel, Burton commented that he would rather “jump out of a window” (those who endured Burton’s “re-imagining” would be inclined to do likewise), so it was no surprise that Big Fish , a personal send-off to his recently departed father, was a more introspective affair. But for all its Southern whimsy, it was worlds away from the subversive invention that marked Burton out as Hollywood ‘s genius-in-waiting.
Burton ‘s influence on contemporary fantasy film cannot be underestimated. The Addams Family, The Cat in the Hat and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events have all taken cues from Burton’s brand of fairytale gothic, while it was Burton who first invited the now ubiquitous Danny Elfman to score Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Burton may no longer be Hollywood ‘s wunderkind adolescent, but like Edward Bloom in Big Fish, perhaps we can best understand the director through his stories. Whether commenting on his insecurities as a director (Ed Wood), or his love life (all of his early films featured unrequited or unobtainable love), Burton continues to author his life through his films.
It is no surprise then, that with the birth of his first child in 2003, Burton has renewed his interest in the children’s fantasy films that made him famous, reuniting with Depp again for the anarchic pop-art feast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Released later this year, Corpse Bride, another Burton animation in the same dark vein as The Nightmare Before Christmas, may yet show us why he remains one of the most original, if complex, talents in Hollywood today.