MR. BURTON’S BRAND OF PECULIAR MOVIES: A TIM BURTON ROUNDTABLE

As we approach the culmination of the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, hard choices need to be made. There are some directors (including , and ) who, while their overall contribution to the field of weird movies might not rise to the heights of a , a , or a , nonetheless possess singular enough visions to demand representation in some form or other on the List. The thorniest of these artists is almost certainly (with whom our Alfred Eaker, in particular, has aired his very public love/hate relationship).

After a couple of shockingly original short features that were so odd that Disney Studios canned him as a storyboard artist, Burton’s career began in earnest with the out-there kid’s comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, an askew road movie starring an abrasively endearing man-child in a series of near-surreal adventures. He followed this unexpected hit with a series of comic-Gothic films featuring weirdo square-peg protagonists trying vainly to fit into society’s round holes. As a complete oeuvre, there’s no doubt that Burton has crafted an aesthetic that’s unique and auteurial. Stripes, organic spirals, Victorian costumes, and pallid pancake makeup serve as recurring visual signatures. Thematically, no one else whips the whimsical and the macabre into such a piquant froth. His late work, however, has unquestionably become both repetitive and qualitatively inferior (note that none of our contributors selected a Burton film made after 1999 as his best). At the same time, Burton has set new box office records with some of his lamest work, like his execrable Alice in Wonderland rehaul, reaping financial rewards that reinforce his worst habits and instincts. This has led to a well-deserved critical backlash against his films, and some on-point parodies:

But despite recent disappointments, there’s no doubt that Burton’s early work was among the most original and gruesomely lively Hollywood-backed product to appear throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties. The problem is that no single Burton film rises confidently above the rest, pronouncing itself as simultaneously his best and his weirdest work. This troublesome fact became even clearer when I solicited staff writers to pick the one Burton film that they thought should unquestionably make the List; I got five different responses, not all of them movies I personally would have considered. Our staff’s suggestions are listed below, in order of release.

El Rob Hubbard Beetlejuice (1988)

Still from Beetlejuice (1988)Although most of Tim Burton’s work has a weird aspect in some form or other, it’s my opinion that Beetlejuice was where he was allowed to let his freak flag fly freely, and it paid off with box-office success. How weird is it? Well, there’s Geena Davis and a pre-stardom Alec Baldwin as a cute married couple who get killed off within the first 10 minutes—and end up haunting their own home; the Afterlife as a bureaucratic nightmare (the longest wait at a doctor’s office morphed with a day at the DMV); a planetary desert teeming with cartoonish sandworms; and as the title character, a sketchy/scuzzy “bio-exorcist” whom the couple enlist to help get rid of the living hipsters (Catherine O’Hara, , and ) who have bought the house. There’s also funnily gruesome suicide victims, lots of stop-motion on display, and Robert Goulet. It doesn’t quite hang together narratively—another Tim Burton trait—but it was the first full-blown taste of the unfiltered Burton aesthetic, which was thankfully rewarded by audiences. Worried about the weirdness, there was some studio push back prior to release, but after audiences accepted Beetlejuice, it led to Burton being tapped to helm Batman.

Alex Kittle Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)Made between Batman and Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands shows Burton at his height, his most imaginative and quixotic. The director has long been fascinated by suburban Americana, infusing many of his earliest artworks and films with parodies of domesticity both playful and monstrous. Here, he places a gentle but outwardly irregular man into the very picture of a 1950s stereotype, a candy-colored community with gossipy housewives, moralistic patriarchs, perfect hedges, pastel wallpaper, and a lot of white people. This clash of sentiments proves perfectly suited to the Burton’s aesthetic, as he can blend whimsical fantasy with cheesy American satire, while allowing plenty of room for surreal nightmare imagery. A visually stunning work, every shot manages to blend sentiment and weirdness effectively, with both humor and romance: the pleasantly windy streets are lined with eerie topiaries; the denizens of the sleepy town sport cartoonish hairstyles; flashbacks reveal a lonely past filled with smiling robots. Danny Elfman’s lilting score moves softly around these painfully optimistic characters, struggling to connect despite personal isolation and physical impediments. It is primarily a comedy, true, but I find myself truly moved by this off-kilter story, and that emotional impact is aided largely by the visual and audio stimuli. That’s not to say Caroline Thompson’s script isn’t strong: blending different genres and moods, biting satire with gushy heart. And of course, the cast is great, from ’s surprisingly quiet but unquestionably silly performance to Dianne Wiest and Alan Arkin’s ridiculous but well-meaning parent couple. With his signature macabre quirk and offbeat humor, plus a refreshingly unique premise, Edward Scissorhands will likely remain his best film, and therefore it seems the best option for the List when choosing from his oeuvre.

Alfred Eaker Batman Returns (1992)

Still from Batman Returns (1992)In many ways Batman Returns marks the beginning of the end of Tim Burton as a self-governing artist. Following Returns, which did not do as well as expected, Burton helmed the box office failures Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks (1996). Since then, Burton understandably has compromised and appeased financiers, and lost his mojo in doing so. Returns stands apart from all other films in the “superhero genre,” in part because it’s not a superhero film. Rather, it’s probably Burton’s most personal film and, I would argue, his greatest flawed masterpiece. It is similar to ‘s experience with Bride of Frankenstein: a director demands carte blanche to make a sequel to a hit original that was as much a product of the producer as director, creates a highly personal film, then falls into a career decline. This sequel, which is more stand-alone cult film than blockbuster, is undeniably perverse—Burton’s genuine Nightmare Before Christmas. It has Biblical underpinnings, an army of kamikaze penguins equipped with weapons of mass destruction, the ethereal milieu of a (personified in Michelle Pfeifer’s -like Cat Woman), the child killer from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a gang of freaks birthed from ’s Theater of Blood, and silent horror film references (from the Caligari-esque Penguin to Christopher Walken’s Nosferatu nod to ’s unmasking a la Phantom of the Opera). It so provoked sponsor McDonalds and the bat-fanbase, who found it too grotesque, too dour, and—unlike its predecessor—too Tim Burton, that the director was immediately yanked from directing a third film. Returns is quintessential Burton; a smorgasbord of aesthetic ideologies and themes, theater of the absurd and idiosyncratic horror. As critic Tim Brayton argues, it’s not a great Batman film, but it is a great Burton film. For further consideration, I recommend Nathan Rabin’s pro-Returns editorial for “Rotten Tomatoes”.

Shane Wilson The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)Many an animated musical classic has begun with the central character singing of their wish for a different life: Snow White peering into a wishing well, Ariel perched on a rock and gazing in wonder at land, Belle running through a field toward the great wide somewhere. It is so very Tim Burton that The Nightmare Before Christmas would not only have such a moment, but that when cake-pop-headed hero Jack Skellington arrives at his “I want” number, he walks up a hill, which accommodatingly unspools beneath him like an enormous licorice rope, looks out over a patch of wailing jack-o-lanterns, and (in the voice of the lead singer of Oingo Boingo) laments that his life is a tedious annual doldrum of shocks and frights. That strange blend of earnest and gruesome is classic Burton, and it is either ironic or axiomatic that the film that best captures his aesthetic and worldview would be one that he didn’t direct (he wrote the original story, produced, and put his name above the title, but animation-specialist directed). No Burton-helmed film has managed to so thoroughly capture his special blend of Gothic design, macabre humor, and childlike innocence. Nightmare consistently turns expectations on their ear, lending the bizarre to the saccharine (the Halloweentown residents’ attempts to replicate Christmas through their own demented filter) while softening repulsiveness with sweetness (a Frankenstein’s-monster with a yearning heart). Nightmare is utterly unique, giving the world of cinema the grotesque children’s Christmas entertainment it never knew it wanted. That its cult continues to grow may be due in part to the need for holiday entertainment that doesn’t feel like rehashed pablum, but it also speaks to the film’s stance as a manifesto for weirdness. Jack Skellington and his fellow oddballs aren’t just weird; they demand tolerance for weirdness. The Nightmare Before Christmas knows this isn’t always a popular message, but it also speaks directly to those best-positioned to hear it. After all, when a little boy unwraps his Skellington-delivered gift box to reveal a severed head, his parents may be screaming. But he’s not.

Giles Edwards  – Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Still from Sleepy Hollow (1999)Assembling his finest cast to date, Burton impresses and entertains with what is perhaps his greatest film in Sleepy Hollow. Purists may dismiss the story as “too adapted” or argue that hit the nail closer to its head in his animated version from the late ’40s, but they’re missing the point. Watching Johnny Depp with assorted British greats (Michael Gambon, Michael Gough, Ian McDiarmid), along with Burton regulars like and Jeffrey Jones, comes close to viewing a live action cartoon that hops among genres like a long-winded schoolmaster. In Sleepy Hollow we find not only the visuals honed to their apex—this time with an entire, actual town built up to Burtonian specifications—along with an Elfmanic score of cartoon-Gothic perfection; but it’s also a whodunnit, a romance, a comedy, a monster movie, and it contains plenty of scary moments. Tripping back and forth between tones, the weird slowly rises in the gullet as Sleepy Hollow turns the screw on the viewer, reaching a mock-fever pitch at a windmill finale that hearkens back to the movie that put Burton on the map: Frankenweenie. Where else does Burton seem all things to all people? Stripped of the heavy-handed emotional trappings of earlier work,  Sleepy Hollow features Depp’s spasmodics, cinematographer Lubezki’s sinister-whimsical palette, and a playful cameo from all coming together for a weird excursion into the cadmium red heart of faux-horror that marks Burton at the height of his powers, in perhaps his last praiseworthy movie.

Reader responses are critical to helping us untie this Burtonian knot. Which of his films deserve to make the List? One? More than one? None at all? Let us know your thoughts. The Burton Conundrum is too important for you to remain silent. Please make your case, though I reserve the right to disregard your input and substitute my own judgment if everyone starts plugging Planet of the Apes.

12 thoughts on “MR. BURTON’S BRAND OF PECULIAR MOVIES: A TIM BURTON ROUNDTABLE”

  1. One thing about NIGHTMARE – it can also be interpreted as “Danny Elfman’s Lament”; there can be read some parallel with his career moving from rock ‘n roller to composer in Jack Skellington’s crisis – though it can be argued that he handled the change better than Jack did. It obviously did have some effect – tensions over credit for NIGHTMARE led to their estrangement for a bit and Elfman not scoring ED WOOD. They eventually reconciled during filming of MARS ATTACKS! and the partnership continued.

  2. I’m sure I’ll get a little bit of blowback for this but I have always felt that Burton’s weirdness was more forced and manufactured than organically genuine. It’s superficially weird–an endlessly repeated aesthetic in search of an artistic vision. For me his observations are too shallow to be taken seriously and his films are too calculated in their strangeness to illicit any kind of emotional response. I haven’t bothered to see anything beyond “Big Fish,” a film that was painfully predictable and featured an incredibly unlikeable, whiny central character in the son who has unexplained, not-terribly-believable issues with his father. Pretty or stark visuals can’t make up for narratives and characters that ring false at every turn (a problem with almost all of his films, in my opinion, with the exception of “Ed Wood” and “Beetlejuice”). In “Big Fish” Burton also committed the cardinal sin for me by including a voice-over narration explicitly and condescendingly telling the audience what they had already figured out for themselves. I cannot abide a director who does not trust the intelligence of his audience. If you measure Burton against your usual Hollywood Oscar-bait and summer blockbusters he might seem pretty bizarre, but even a cursory toe-dip into world of more artsy and experimental world cinema will cause his clay feet crumble to dust. I would not personally include any Tim Burton film on a list of the weirdest of all time.

  3. My own take is that both Beetlejuice and Batman Returns should make the list.

    Beetlejuice – the only one that should definitely make the list. Though the Burton firmly establishes the art direction style and many of the tropes that he would later reuse. Some of the ideas like the planet of sandworms, Beetlejuice’s various manifestations, the grotesque ghosts and the incongruous calypso music mark establish this as the weirdest of these five selections and possibly of Burton’s whole oeuvre.

    Batman Returns – Burton with full directorial control and the budget to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was to create a gothic urban noir filled with circus performers, Christmas trappings and an S&M love story. Where other Burton films are pleas for tolerance of weirdness, that deep down Edward Scissorhands is gentler and kinder than the so-called normal people, this film makes no excuses and revels in the murderous excesses of the costumed freaks who populate its world (even Batman sets one clown on fire and blows another up). That this is an extension of a franchise aimed at young children makes it even weirder.

    Edward Scissorhands – Probably should be a list candidate, but I feel that the trappings of weirdness are decoration to a traditional tale of forbidden romance. The fact that it’s clearly pitched as a fairytale also helps to alleviate some of the weirdness, because fairytales are understood to have less requirement to have logical explanations for events. One thing in its favour is that I think it’s the best of these five films in terms of quality and realisation.

    The Nightmare Before Christmas – Probably another list candidate as it’s also a brilliantly realised film, but the fact that it’s an animated cartoon mean it has greater latitude to be weird. The weirdness primarily stems from the weirdness grotesque designs of Halloween-town’s inhabitants, but once past that in many ways it’s not too far from other animated films that draw from holiday mascots (like “Rise of the Guardians”, which I hated). It’s the least personal of these films as Henry Selick directs, and of Selick’s four features, the other three all seem to be weirder than this one.

    Sleepy Hollow – Shouldn’t make the list. I like it a lot but I feel it’s the least of these five both in quality and weirdness, as the style is mostly pastiching Hammer Horror films and the plot is mostly straightforward in terms of supernatural horror fantasy.

  4. If any should appear in the list, it’s certainly Bettlejuice the only one which evoques true weirdness. Lots of memorable scenes support that.

  5. My immediate, personal impulse is to say that Nightmare Before Christmas absolutely should make the list, but I’m fully aware that’s due to the fact that I’ve loved the movie since I was a year old and have watched it far more times than I can count. It’s incredible to look at and listen to, and I could extol its virtues for hours on end, but I’m not entirely certain it counts as weird per say.

    Out of Burton’s full body of work, I’d say Batman Returns is most deserving of a spot on the list. That a major studio blockbuster wound up so personal and stylized in the early 90s is achievement enough, but that it’s Tim Burton who managed it makes the film something special. The art direction’s phenomenal, probably the best of Burton’s entire career, with a tendency towards making cold oppressive environments feel somewhat warmer or downright frigid depending on the characters inhabiting them. And what characters they are – Danny deVito giving the best live action supervillain performance this side of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Michelle Pfeiffer’s incredibly compelling and weirdly kinky Catwoman, Michael Keaton coming off as stiff and awkward and anti-social as a proper Batman should be… even Christopher Walken manages a compelling sort of oddity as opposed to his usual bug-eyed out of control manner.

    What makes it a definite list contender for me is the strange sexual energy it has going. Both Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands are sexually charged to an extent, but they’re more crude or childlike respectively. Batman Returns has a raw, barely restrained fascination with the perverse and depraved you shouldn’t be able to ignore when you place what were originally children’s characters in such a twisted adult setting, yet most creators, both in and out of the comics, before and since, seem to actively ignore. It’s the weirdest Batman’s ever been outside Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and in being so might just be the best, purest-to-form interpretation of Batman these last seventy-five plus years.

    So yeah, I’m championing Batman Returns for list status.

  6. Adding an additional 2 cents here:

    I am almost inclined to wholly agree with Brad and he makes valid points. However, ultimately, my thoughts would be toward the title I championed for one reason above all the additional reasons that I already gave: It is the the most and perhaps only film of Burton’s which was (and remains) provocative. I simply cannot really any other Burton film that inspired bourgeoisie audiences to walk out on. Actually, it’s the only “superhero” film I know of which that could be said as well. I do not mean “provocative” in the sense of “Batman VS Superman,” which is undoubtedly a wretched film that compelled provoked fanboys to defend their comic book deities. Quite the reverse. “Batman Returns” predictably made the bulk of its box office in the opening weekend. However, people were genuinely angry about it and, having seen it twice during its opening weekend, I can attest to witnessing patrons storm out of the theatre midway through both showings. I recall news stations carrying stories about the same happening in major cities. An amusing interview with patrons was aired on late night 1992 news and boy those fanboys were mightily upset with the film, having been disappointed in its eccentricities and for not being like the 1989 “Batman.” Hell, even Heath Ledger’s Joker was “acceptable” compared to the perversity of BR.

    With Pee Wee, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands (all of which are superior Burton) we expected chic goth weirdness. Anyone who had seen Herman on SNL or David Letterman (pre-Playhouse) pretty much knew what to expect and neither Burton or star disappointed. With “Edward Scissorhands,” the casting of Vincent Price, whom Burton had paid previously homage to in “Vincent,” we were pretty much clued to its grand-guignol vibe and, IMHO, its weirdness is confined to Burton’s delightfully idiosyncratic take on suburbia. We could say the same about “Beetlejuice” since it was about ghosts. The weirdness of “Nightmare Before Christmas” is indeed pronounced, creating an entirely new universe. However, I think his near return to form, “Corpse Bride,” which IS about necrophilia, is ultimately weirder. Too, I might add that the Rankin & Bass “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,” with its abominable snowman, charlie-in-the-box and (especially) Yukon Cornelius is an even more naturally weird yuletide favorite.

    The bullet point complaints that were most often registered against “Batman Returns” concerned the attempted murder of an infant, the grotesque penguin portrayal (groping a woman , followed by sniffing his fins and muttering a misogynistic slur, which BTW, was “the” breaking point for its golden arch sponsor), the ludicrously surreal “resurrection” of catwoman (her fingers being gnawed on by felines), a Bruce Wayne who seems as psychotic as the “bad guys,” along with the penguin army of mass destruction which is absurdly weird to the degree that comic book fundamentalists still complain about it. Adding these to the previous qualities, it was simply too much for audiences, particularly those who counted themselves as DC fans.

    I saw “Batman Returns” with my late and much missed friend Woody Rau. We were so convinced by its inherent weirdness that we breathed a sigh of relief when we heard Burton was going to direct “Ed Wood.” We knew anyone who made a film as weird as BR, would do justice to our favorite angora-wearing filmmaker. We were right.

    Still, for all of his flaws, Burton , who once said that he would not know a good script if it bit him,” is a visual filmmaker who, like his idol -Mario Bava- is too often “narratively challenged.” He absolutely was an innovative filmmaker and regardless which one is picked and regardless off his post 90s decline, he did great things once and that’s enough (and of course, we can hope he’ll produce a genuine return to form). For those reasons he deserves at least a single inclusion.

    1. You make a compelling argument and I’m willing to consider “Batman Returns.” It left me cold when I first saw it decades ago, but then I am neither a costumed superhero fan nor particularly entranced by Burton’s aesthetic. I recently saw a few scenes on TV (I work at a social support center for adults with mental illness and there are always televisions playing in two different rooms. Even a group of mentally ill folks were perplexed by “BR” which is, I suppose, some kind of endorsement!) and I will grudgingly admit that what I walked in on was pretty weird. I’d have to watch it again straight through to decide and I’m not sure I’m willing to do that! For the record I enjoyed “Beetlejuice” & “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and I loved “Ed Wood,” so I am not completely anti-Burton. I feel he is far more miss than hit, however and his weirdo credentials have been vastly overstated.

  7. My vote is for Beetlejuice, for being the full flowering of Burton’s mainstream weirdness. But Batman Returns’ fans have convinced me, too. I suppose that, since I grew up with Batman the Animated Series and the Frank Miller Batman take, it wasn’t that shocking to me. The Batman I grew up was always a Danny Elfman scored Gothic fairytale.

    No love for Dark Shadows? That movie was fun!

  8. It’s never occurred to me to think of Burton as weird. colourful, baroque, decadent, vacillating between whimsical and moody, but somehow, not very weird.

    I believe his best films to be Big Fish and Ed Wood, both of them feel a bit fairy tale like and a lot of heart and care about their motley characters. But they aren’t overly weird, even if they narrate tales of odd people.

  9. Did somebody say blowback? :)

    See, this is the problem I have with fantasy films on a weird movies list. If you want a weird children’s fantasy, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl ought to get a nod before anything by Tim Burton. http://366weirdmovies.com/capsule-the-adventures-of-sharkboy-and-lavagirl-in-3-d-2005/

    If we’re going to go through with this anyway, I’ll throw in a vote for Beetlejuice. And I’d opinionatedly add that Burton has gone straight downhill ever since.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *