There used to be a time when I'd genuinely look forward to the new Tim Burton film, Dark Shadows. There was a quality that ran through his early films, as he honed that gothic off kilter look and direction. This was a director making films on his own terms, not a hint of selling out. In Johnny Depp, he had an actor seemingly created to star in his films. His films were successful and critically well received. What could go wrong? He could merrily go on making the films he wanted.
Unfortunately things do seem to have gone awry, with Burton seeming to have lost his mojo. His most recent output has all his usual hallmarks, that dark gothic look, Johnny Depp and a fairytale story line. It should be a case of mixing it all together with liberal helpings of Helena Bonham Carter, and hey presto another hit.. Recently that hasn't been been the case..
You can almost split his career in two. Films made pre and post Planet of the Apes; as shown by the graph below.
Planet of the Apes is the first Burton film I saw at the cinema. That’s not because this was the Tim Burton film above all others that I was desperate to see, no sir. The majority of Burton’s films I had seen to that point had been on TV, on account of me being too young to see them at the cinema. Having seen and loved Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, I was bizarrely looking forward to seeing the Apes remake at the cinema. The good favour he’d built up with his previous films, made me think that maybe he could pull it off. With Batman he made the big action superhero film whilst sticking to his visual aesthetic, and it was a huge success. What we got with Planet of the Apes was an almost by the numbers film, you could describe it as a Hollywood studio film, the ending may have been brave but it just didn’t work.
As awful as Apes was it didn’t put me off. Anyone can make a bad film, it doesn’t make you a bad film maker. Alex Ferguson once said “form is temporary, class is permanent,” which was a mantra I applied to Burton. Maybe Ape’s was shit because he forgot to cast Depp? Maybe the studio meddled too much? His next film would surely sort it out, I told myself. So it was that I saw his next film, and his next film, and the next after that at the cinema
Were they the return to form I hoped for? No.
Big Fish. Received mixed reviews, but I actually didn’t think it was that bad. It’s all over the place but the ending is emotional and heartfelt. Have I felt the urge to watch it again? No
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Another remake and after the last one went so well! Burton teams up with Depp again, who channels Michael Jackson to make Wonka much creepier than Gene Wilder ever did. I won’t even mention the rubbish oompa loompa and the tacked on father issues.
That’s where I drew the line, I haven’t seen any of his films at the cinema since. I’ve still rented them all on DVD, fingers crossed in the hope that this is the one where he finds his feet again. I’m usually disappointed. Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland have both been instantly forgettable. There seems to be more than a hint of giving into the studio on both these films. Sweeney Todd had the bizarre non musical trailer and Alice the 3D conversion. Both films made their money back and then some, but that Burton Magic from earlier films was missing. I’d hoped that Sweeney Todd might capture some of the mayhem of Beetlejuice, or with Alice the fairy tale wonder of Scissorhands but, they both just seemed flat. Flat pictures projected to give the image of 3D in the case of Alice.
Am I judging too harshly? Is he paying the price for such a blisteringly good early career? In some ways perhaps even he knows it. His next film, Frankenweenie, is a return to his roots, the film that got him sacked from Disney all those years ago.
I sincerely hope it’s a return to form. A world where Tim Burton makes good films is always going to be a more interesting place.