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The Films of Tim Burton

Pee-wee's Big Adventure

Beetle Juice (October 28/08)

Quite possibly the most bizarre and flat-out surreal effort of Tim Burton's career, Beetle Juice details the post-death exploits of happily-married couple Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) - with the majority of the proceedings devoted to their efforts at scaring away the new family that's moved into their expansive home. Though his character provides the film's title, Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice remains a surprisingly periphery figure for the majority of Beetle Juice's run-time - with Burton instead using Adam and Barbara's oddball shenanigans as a springboard for a series of thoroughly creative set-pieces and interludes. The inevitable realization that Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren's screenplay isn't actually about anything is subsequently not nearly as problematic as one might've feared, as Burton has - along with production designer Bo Welch and composer Danny Elfman - infused the movie with a funhouse-like sensibility that proves instrumental in capturing (and sustaining) the viewer's enduring interest. And while there are admittedly a few lulls within the narrative, the consistent inclusion of eye-popping sequences - ie the infamous "Day-O" musical number, a confrontation with an enormous sandworm, etc - does assure that such instances of downtime are often short lived and easy to overlook. Keaton's scene-stealing performance remains an obvious highlight, yet it's hard to deny the effectiveness of the supporting cast's uniformly strong work (in addition to Baldwin and Davis, the movie boasts appearances from Jeffrey Jones, Sylvia Sidney, and Winona Ryder) - with the end result an unapologetically silly and endlessly inventive exercise in style.

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Batman (February 11/14)

It is, unfortunately, awfully difficult to revisit Tim Burton's Batman with an impartial eye in the wake of Christopher Nolan's genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy, as the film, viewed in that light, can't help but come off as underwhelming and overly cartoonish by comparison - which is too bad, certainly, given that there are still plenty of elements here that absolutely enthrall (including Michael Keaton's tremendously entertaining turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman). But the movie, which unfolds at a pace that often feels much more deliberate than necessary, is never quite able to make the leap from mildly amusing to flat-out engrossing, with Burton's curiously subdued sensibilities playing a key role in perpetuating the film's erratic, uninvolving atmosphere (ie the film, though suffused with larger-than-life characters and visuals, mostly plays like a somber drama). The compelling-yet-rarely-captivating vibe prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to either the characters or the storyline, with the transformation of Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier into the Joker faring especially poorly - as Nicholson, though quite good here, never quite manages to make the role his own as Heath Ledger did in 2008's The Dark Knight (ie it often feels as though Nicholson is just riffing on Cesar Romero's take from the campy '60s television series). There's so much here that works - Danny Elfman's iconic score, Anton Furst's gothic production design, etc - that Batman's inability to take flight, so to speak, is nothing short of baffling, as it's clear that the film, watchable as it may be, could (and should) be so much better.

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Edward Scissorhands

Batman Returns

Ed Wood

Mars Attacks!

Sleepy Hollow

Planet of the Apes (November 30/01)

Planet of the Apes casts Mark Wahlberg as Leo Davidson, a cocky pilot who, through a series of bizarre incidences, finds himself thrust into a world where intelligent simians rule. The humans have been relegated to slavery, used as bartering chips among the apes. Being the headstrong soldier that he is, Davidson is not content to just sit around and do the bidding of a bunch of monkeys, so he sets out to escape his captors and make it back to his ship - where he'll hopefully be able to fly away from this planet of the apes. Along the way, he befriends two women - one an ape and one a human - and incurs the wrath of a vengeful chimp named General Thade (played with over-the-top glee by Tim Roth). Planet of the Apes bears little resemblance to the Charlton Heston flick that inspired it, as the film generally plays out as more of an action movie than a drama. And oddly enough, some of the more compelling characters in the movie are under a few coats of ape make-up. As one of the few humans, Mark Wahlberg has an unenviable job - he has to try and make an impression while standing next to remarkably lifelike apes, monkeys, and orangutans. And he's good, though in a bland sort of way. It's the many actors trapped inside ape costumes that steal the show, particularly Paul Giamatti as Limbo. Best known for his role as Howard Stern's arch-nemesis "Pig Vomit" in Private Parts, Giamatti has been stealing scenes for years. It's remarkable, then, that he still manages to do so even while under pounds and pounds of make-up. If there's a fault to this otherwise consistently entertaining flick, it's a truly bizarre ending that leaves a horrible aftertaste. Twist endings are good, provided they make sense. Twist endings simply for the sake of twist endings are bad, and that's what we've got here. Burton should have just left well enough alone and either ended the flick after that last battle, or copied that oft-imitated conclusion from the original. Anything but this nonsensical ending that we're stuck with. Planet of the Apes is summer entertainment done right. With a top-notch director and some amazing visual effects, it's certainly one of the most entertaining check-your-brain-at-the-door flicks in recent years.

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Big Fish (December 6/03)

Though it's not quite his best work (that remains Pee-Wee's Big Adventure), Big Fish does mark Tim Burton's most accomplished and (for lack of a better word) grown-up movie to date. And after the unapologetically mainstream Planet of the Apes, Big Fish returns Burton to his quirky and more character driven roots. Told largely in flashback, the film stars Billy Crudup as a successful young man named Will Bloom. Will's never had a very good relationship with this father, Edward (Albert Finney), a gregarious Southerner with a penchant for tall tales. But given that Edward is on his deathbed, Will finds that he has to try and connect with his dad before he passes away. Meanwhile, the various stories that Edward's been telling his whole life unfold before our eyes, with Ewan McGregor appearing as the younger Edward. Big Fish is expansive yet intimate, with detailed portraits of various characters occurring over some of the most visually interesting sets to come around in a while. From the bizarre town of Spectre (in which the roads are covered in grass) to the circus that employs Edward, the film is a continual delight on a visceral level. There's absolutely no mistaking the unique touch of Burton, who fills the screen with his expected offbeat sensibilities (it's the kind of movie that would be easy enough to identify as Burton's, even if you had no idea who directed it). And as one would expect from a Burton flick, he's included a roster of actors that's just about perfect. Though most of McGregor's scenes take place in the fantasy land of Edward's imagination, the actor imbues the character with a definite sense of realism; he never goes over the top, which must have been a temptation (especially when you're consorting with a literal giant). Not surprisingly, Edward's been surrounded by a variety of eccentric characters - including the aforementioned giant, who actually turns out to be a fairly compelling figure (as played by Matthew McGrory, the man never becomes a cliché). Familiar faces like Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi pop up in supporting roles, which just adds to the atmosphere of fun. But the film also spends a good deal of time in the present, as Will attempts to get to know the real Edward. Crudup, in one of his rare "normal guy" roles, does a superb job of playing this man that clearly loves his father but has grown tired of his neverending stories. It's Will's relationship with Edward that provides the film with its emotional core, which proves to be downright touching by the time everything is said and done. And that's what makes Big Fish as special as it is. The fantastical elements in the film ensure that it remains entertaining throughout, but it's the reality of the characters that makes the movie more than just a visual treat. By the time the end credits roll around, there's a distinct possibility that male audience members will find themselves shedding a tear or two. Big Fish is one of those films that deals with the relationship between a father and his son, and (like Frequency and Field of Dreams before it) packs an emotional wallop that most men will easily be able to relate to. Big Fish is a real achievement from one of Hollywood's most underrated directors. Don't miss it.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (July 12/05)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marks Tim Burton's second remake (following Planet of the Apes), and to call this an improvement is quite an understatement. Burton's only goal this time around is to entertain, and on that level, he undoubtedly succeeds. The film is set in some bizarre amalgam of various time periods, where women dress like it's the '40s, kids play modern video games, and blue collar workers have begun losing jobs to machines. Our hero is Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), one of five children that wins a chance to visit Willy Wonka's (Johnny Depp) legendary candy factory. Leading the tour is, of course, Willy Wonka himself - who takes the kids all around his larger-then-life plant, and introduces them to the fabled Oompa Loompas (all of whom are portrayed by one man, Deep Roy). It's impossible to talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without mentioning Depp's odd performance (odd even by his standards), which will undoubtedly divide audiences. There's absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about this guy; he seems to actively dislike these kids and their parents, to the extent that it's difficult to imagine why Wonka would invite all these people into his factory (we learn the necessity behind the invitation as the film progresses). In that respect, the film offers up an explanation behind Wonka's anti-social tendencies in the form of flashbacks revolving around his relationship with his cruel father (played by Christopher Lee). But there's absolutely no denying the fact that - along with Burton's expectedly loopy sense of style and Danny Elfman's quirky score - it's Depp who keeps things interesting throughout, if only to see what he'll say or do next.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (December 20/07)

Based on Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, Sweeney Todd casts Johnny Depp as Benjamin Barker - a barber whose efforts at exacting revenge against those who wronged him are sidetracked by his participation in a profitable (and grisly) meat-pie business with neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). While there's certainly no shortage of positive attributes within Sweeney Todd - including Tim Burton's expectedly grandiose directorial choices and Depp's wonderfully entertaining performance - the film suffers from a relentless emphasis on bland, thoroughly forgettable musical numbers whose sameness inevitably lends the proceedings a distinctly oppressive quality. And although there are a few admittedly memorable songs sprinkled here and there - ie "My Friends," Barker's bizarre ode to his knives, and a touching ballad entitled "Johanna" - the movie primarily comes off as a strangely interior piece of work that seems to transpire mostly within the confines of one tiny room. That the running time has been padded out with a whole host of superfluous subplots and supporting characters certainly doesn't help matters, with the would-be romance between Barker's daughter and a scrappy young sailor clearly the most obvious example of this. The end result is a film that's sporadically intriguing but mostly dull, which is undoubtedly the last thing one would expect from a filmmaker with as flawless a track record as Burton.

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Alice in Wonderland (January 14/11)

A sequel to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Alice in Wonderland follows a grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as she's summoned back into the title fantasy world by Michael Sheen's White Rabbit - with the film subsequently revolving around Alice's ongoing efforts at ending the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) reign of terror. There's little doubt that Alice in Wonderland boasts as impressive and frequently eye-popping a visual sensibility as filmmaker Tim Burton has become known for, as the director does a superb job of transforming Wonderland into an immersive, downright astonishing landscape that ultimately stands as the movie's most compelling attribute. It's just as clear, however, that the film's decidedly thin storyline effectively (and continually) prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the proceedings, with the proliferation of oddball yet far-from-engrossing characters proving instrumental in perpetuating the movie's arm's-length atmosphere - although, to be fair, there are a few notable exceptions to this (with Carter's amusingly over-the-top turn as the capricious Red Queen an obvious highlight). By the time the larger-than-life, battle-heavy finale rolls around, Alice in Wonderland has undoubtedly established itself as an endeavor that's big on spectacle yet small on plot - which cements its place as big-budget timewaster that just barely manages to squeak by as a result of Burton's visual flair (but really, the movie should've been so, so much better).

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Dark Shadows (May 10/12)

Based on the long-running television series, Dark Shadows follows vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) as he emerges from a centuries-long imprisonment into swinging 1972 - with the film subsequently exploring Barnabas' fish-out-of-water exploits and, eventually, his efforts at defeating his maker and nemesis (Eva Green's Angelique Bouchard). Filmmaker Tim Burton, working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, does a superb job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as Dark Shadows kicks off with an irresistibly over-the-top prologue detailing Barnabas' lurid past - with the fast-paced and engrossing nature of this stretch heightened by Burton's familiar yet compelling directorial choices. And although the film slows down considerably as it makes the jump into the '70s, Dark Shadows benefits substantially from an initial emphasis on Barnabas' culture shock as the character begins exploring his new surroundings (eg he refers to Alice Cooper, playing himself, as the "ugliest woman" he's ever seen). Inevitably, though, the novelty of the premise wears off and the movie slowly-but-surely loses its grip on the viewer, with the increasingly middling midsection, which is devoted primarily to Barnabas' less-than-captivating efforts at both rebuilding his family business and destroying Green's sultry character, paving the way for an action-packed climax that's as conventional as it is tedious. The end result is a disappointingly underwhelming endeavor that stands as the latest misfire from a once rock-solid filmmaker, which is a shame, certainly, since Dark Shadows does possess a good chunk of exceedingly positive attributes (eg Depp's amusingly broad performance).

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Frankenweenie (October 21/12)

Based on a 29-minute short from 1984, Frankenweenie follows an intrepid youngster (Charlie Tahan's Victor) as he successfully brings his dead dog back to life using a Frankenstein-like contraption. There is, unfortunately, never a point at which it's not completely obvious that Frankenweenie has been adapted from a short film, as the movie, scripted by John August, has been suffused with a number of sequences that are either palpably overlong or flat-out needless - with the padded-out vibe, as anticipated, diminishing the strength of the film's positive attributes. It's clear, though, that Frankenweenie benefits substantially from Tim Burton's expectedly larger-than-life approach to the material, as the director has infused the proceedings with a broad and decidedly gothic sensibility that's more in line with his earlier efforts (Edward Scissorhands, Batman) than with his newer, comparatively garish output (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows). (The film's highlight is, for example, a long, bravura sequence in which Vincent resurrects his departed pooch.) There's a lack of momentum here that grows increasingly problematic as time progresses, however, and it's worth noting, too, that the aggressively action-packed final stretch, which seems to take up a third of the movie's running time, ensures that the film concludes with a whimper instead of a bang. Still, Frankenweenie is nevertheless an obvious step in the right direction for Burton after a series of overwhelming, over-the-top blockbusters - although it's becoming less and less likely that the filmmaker will ever return to the above-average landscape of his first features.

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About the DVD: Beetle Juice arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Home Video armed with an absolutely flawless 1080p transfer and a smattering of bonus features (including three episodes of the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon show, an isolated track for Danny Elfman's score, a five-track CD sampler, and more). Alice in Wonderland, on the other hand, comes armed with a glorious 1080p transfer and an impressive selection of bonus features.
© David Nusair