Tag Archives: Tim Burton

284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

“Being the Batman fan that I am, I pretended to like the film. I passionately defended it to my ‘non-Batman’ friends who found it ‘weird’ or ‘dumb.’ But eventually, I gave in to the fact that this film plain sucked. This macabre, morose, dark abomination was a Batman film in name only. Frankly, I felt screwed by Warner Brothers and Mr. Burton.”–Bill “Jett” Ramey, “Batman on Film”

“It’s human nature to fear the unusual.”–The Penguin, Batman Returns

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michell Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito,

PLOT: The film sets Batman against three new villains: Oswald Cobblepot, a deformed outcast who lives in the sewers and adopts the name “the Penguin”; “Catwoman,” former secretary Selina Kyle turned feminist avenger after a near-death experience; and Max Shreck, a wealthy retailer who wants to build a power plant opposed by Gotham City’s mayor and by Batman’s alter-ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne. With differing agendas and shifting loyalties, the three form a plan to run Cobblepot for mayor and to frame Batman for the city’s crime problem, while Bruce and Selina pursue a romance, not realizing that they are sworn enemies. After the superhero foils the initial plot, the Penguin pulls out a more elaborate, apocalyptic plan.

Still from Batman Returns (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tim Burton, who had scored a blockbuster with the original Batman (1989),  was reluctant to produce a sequel. Warner Brothers convinced him to helm the film by giving him almost complete creative control. Heathers‘ Daniel Waters was brought in to shade Sam Hamm’s too-sunny original script. It was a move the studio came to regret (the film was profitable, but not as big a hit as its predecessor, and parental complaints that it was too violent/sexy/weird for kids spooked the suits). Neither Burton nor star Michael Keaton returned for the third movie in Warners’ Batman franchise, which went in a lighter, more family-friendly direction under Joel Schumacher.
  • Angry parents boycotted McDonalds for (unwisely) including Batman Returns action figures in Happy Meals, complaining that the movie was too violent for kids.
  • Oscar-nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Also nominated (unjustly, in our opinion) for a “Worst Supporting Actor” Razzie for Danny DeVito.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I’m going to go with the army of penguins equipped with missiles striped like candy canes (remember, this is a Christmas movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kitty corpse revival; poodle with a hand grenade; missile penguin army

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Let loose with a budget of $80 million and almost complete creative control in 1992, Tim Burton smuggled weirdness into the cineplex in the guise of a superhero sequel. The resulting picture has as many excesses as you can possibly sneak into a blockbuster: suggestive S&M duels between sexually repressed loners clad in fetish gear, a carnival-themed gang who unleash their surreal clown fury on Gotham at Christmas, and an army of penguins led by a deformed sociopath.


Original trailer for Batman Returns

COMMENTS: Earning over 260 million simoleons at the box office—although some ticket buyers probably asked for a refund—Batman Continue reading 284. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

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

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)

Novelist Ransom Riggs and should have been an ideal match, but Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016) is yet another verification that this director is at the end of his tether.

Burton can’t take the sole blame. He shares that honor with screenwriter Jane Goldman, who previously scripted two of the better X-Men sagas. This is part of the problem: they treat the material as if it’s the initial entry in a new and potentially profitable X-Men-styled franchise. For a director who has long made claims to specializing in films for the peculiar, Burton shows no genuine enthusiasm for his newest project and, with Goldman, sucks all the peculiarity out of its source material. This has been Tim Burton’s modus operandi for a long time, apparent to almost everyone (the director’s zealous, in-denial cult excepted). Burton likewise neutered all the surrealism of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Disneyfied Barnabas Collins, Sweeney Todd, and Willy Wonka. Even Disney itself, teamed with Bing Crosby, was more adept at interpreting Washington Irvin’s Ichabod Crane. There’s a problem when two paragons of artistic conservatism have a better feel for the kooky-souled than a self-proclaimed specialist.

Burton came closest to a return to form with The Corpse Bride (2005), which he co-directed with Mike Johnson, along with Big Eyes (2014), the story of Margaret Keane. Despite being a personal project, the latter film eventually faltered in focusing on a kitsch suburban artist who simply wasn’t as interesting as the working relationship between the world’s worst director and one the worst ham actors of all time in Ed Wood. Still, this is the director who took a pre-existing pulp character (Batman) and managed to produce two comic book-inspired masterpieces stamped with highly personalized weirdness (especially Batman Returns, which really should be one for the List). He probably would have done the same for Superman, or at least that appears to be the case from the fascinating documentary Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? (2015).

With his latest misfire, however, Burton is yet again crippled by his own brand crutch, producing a caricature of himself that imitates imitator’s imitations of Tim Burton, with Riggs’s narrative ending up a casualty. In addition to borrowing from his own past “hits,” Burton throws in a sink-full of other sources, including Groundhog Day,  Back to the Future, X-Men, and Harry Potter, but this Burton is not the Burton of the Eighties and Nineties, nor is he a Robert Zemeckis, Harold Ramis, , or even journeyman David Yates. By now, Burton heading a project is an almost as guaranteed a recipe for disaster as is hiring .

There are a few plusses, including a campy in the title role. As the shape shifting matriarch of her orphanage for misfits, adorned in Coleen Atwood’s goth costuming, Green demands our attention (and gets it). Samuel L. Jackson also has fun hamming it up as the antagonist Barron. However, despite some good moments amidst impressive set pieces, Jackson’s Barron is a vague character. Supporting actors Chris O’ Dowd, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, and Allison Janney are virtually  wasted. Asa Butterfly, as Jake, turns in an off-colored and ultimately two-dimensional performance, which can be blamed on Burton, since the actor has done good work for others (i.e. Boy in the Striped PajamasHugo). Best is Ella Purnell as Emma, who embodies an atmospheric sense of nostalgia in a star-making performance.

Still from Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)As expected, there is CGI aplenty (including a floating ghost ship, an ode to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work, and post-production botox for actor Terence Stamp, something like to a roughly sketched version of Big Fish‘s Ed Bloom). Additionally, the physical space is well-utilized, even more so than in his previous few films. Even at his most fatigued, Burton still manages to produce a pretty package.

Unfortunately, the package is an empty box. Over-written, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is woefully complicated, cram-packed, emotionally bankrupt,  poorly-paced, and far too narcissistic in its mythology-building and exposition, feeling at times like lost footage from alternative production of ‘s Dune. Perhaps he and Goldman should have watched Rankin and Bass to learn how to convey a world of misfits more simply, or rewatch his own Batman (1989), which was comparatively underwritten (and it didn’t matter one damn bit).  With Riggs’s array of misfits, one can easily imagine the appeal, but Burton’s (undeniable) strengths are slurped up by executive production demands as wholly as the Barron devours his eyeballs, which can be summed in a finale that has to be his most painfully obvious and dumbest since Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes.

EAKER VS. EAKER VS.THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)

Alfred:

I doubt that even Jesus Christ himself knows how many film treatments there have been of s Alice sagas. Among the damned few that have been predominantly successful is the 1951 animated feature produced under the auspices of old man Walt himself. One would think the Disney folk would be happy with that, and leave well enough alone. Instead, they foisted ‘s 2010 version on us, which took a toilet plunger and sucked out virtually all of the novel’s inherent surrealism. It was a new nadir for both Burton and Disney. The Burton of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Batman Returns (1992), and Ed Wood (1994) might have been an ideal match for the material. But, as a wise old owl once said, “the world may never know.” The Burton of 2010 was well past his tether and far from being the dark visionary of his past. Indeed, his Alice was a painfully sanitized caricature, and it seemed Burton could sink no lower (until Dark Shadows, that is).

Promo for Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)The Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland was scripted by Disney writer Linda Woolverton, who is and always has been a hack. Her Beauty and the Beast  (1991) was a saccharine parody of ‘s staggeringly brilliant 1946 psychological fantasy. Astoundingly, Beast earned an Academy Award Best Picture nomination (one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments, which is saying a lot). Even more cringe-inducing was her 1994 Lion King, with its maudlin “Circle of Life” song upchucked by Elton John (who seems hell bent on proving that Bernie Taupin deserves all the credit for their collaborations) and Tim Rice (who seems hell bent on proving that Howard Ashman deserves all the credit for their collaborations). Woolverton’s resume expanded with more Alka-Seltzer slugfests, such as Beauty and the Beast: Enchanted Christmas (1997), Belle’s Magical World (1998), Mulan (1998), Lion King 2 (1998) and Maleficent (2014).  Even in her most critically successful films (i.e Mulan) her writing never rises above formula, and what some feel might have worked in the projects she was attached to should be credited more to the animation and direction. Woolverton’s Alice made her direct-to-video, second-rate sequels look less embarrassing by comparison.

It hardly took a clairvoyant to see Alice Through the Looking Glass was a preordained disaster. A production team of hacks had plagued the previous production and, wisely, Burton opted out of returning as director. Gving Burton his due, he had to have known the Continue reading EAKER VS. EAKER VS.THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)

CAPSULE: BIG FISH (2003)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Albert Finney, , , , , , Robert Guillaume, , , Loudon Wainwright III,

PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?

Still from Big Fish (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish  was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Freddie Highmore, David Kelly,  Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, ,

PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…

Still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.

COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?

Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away… Before the trip is over, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

Big Eyes (2015) is probably ‘s most satisfactory film since Ed Wood (1994). Alas, that is a minuscule compliment. Burton began as a refreshing original working within a tinseled industry, but formulaic demands soon rendered his later work imitative and an example of style over substance.

Burton was once the hip auteur for the perennial college and goth crowds. Now, he is the butt of their humor: a cautionary warning of a sell-out losing all originality and vitality.

He went the distance in proving the cynical naysayers correct, reaching his nadir with Alice in Wonderland (2010), which jettisoned authentic Carrollesque surrealism in favor of populist fluff and a cringe-inducing slice of Johnny Depp ham.

In vain, one hoped Burton had nowhere to go but up, but he only continued his slide, proving nostalgia is fleeting with an ill-advised and execrable update of Dark Shadows (2012). He followed this with a pointless, self-plagiarized feature, Frankenweenie (2012), which predictably worked better in its original version as a compact short.

Burton is certainly not immune to critical fallout. Of course, it has hardly affected his box office standing, but popularity with aesthetically illiterate masses is only salt to the wound.

With Big Eyes, Burton belatedly responds to critics by playing the narcissistic victim, projecting himself onto the figure of artist Margaret Keane. In doing so, he damn near kills the film, but, surprisingly, his opus (barely) survives him.

Still from Big Eyes (2014)Burton’s epic misstep is in subduedly addressing Keane’s art as kitsch. It is kitsch. There is nothing original about her mass-produced  art for the Walmart home spread. Her illustrations are a kind of synthetic parody of Modigliani.  Yet, Burton is a Keane fan, and fan is short for fanatic.  Naturally, he takes the fanboy approach in identifying with his object of adulation. Undoubtedly, Burton can find affinity in Keane’s strategical marketing to a bourgeoise public.

In pedestaling Margaret Keane’s gimmicky, one-note cartoons, Burton casts the art critics and gallery dealers as two-dimensional, jealous predators. It’s the equivalent of a cinematic exclamation point, or a big bang at the end of a pedestrian symphony. The homogenous Tim Burton/Margaret Keane hybrid becomes a much put-upon martyr. Cue big, puppy-eyed closeup.  It is the kind of manipulative choice that Spielberg used to be so goddamned guilty of.

Big Eyes would have been a far better film had Burton made a smarter choice by avoiding the topic altogether, or in taking either an objective or idiosyncratic approach (as he did in Ed Wood). In many ways, Big Eyes serves as little sister to Ed Wood, but in that earlier film, a younger, fresher director did not succumb to tomfoolery. Continue reading TIM BURTON’S BIG EYES (2014)

25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

A quarter century after its debut, ‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than ‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of ‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize ‘s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

Burton’s casting inspired controversy among unimaginative comic book fanatics, who only saw Keaton in his previous comic roles. The actor and director proved them wrong. ‘s Wayne, in the Nolan films, resorts to a dull playboy act. Keaton’s Wayne can’t help revealing that he has as many screws loose as his alter ego. Burton says in less than ten minutes what Nolan takes an entire film to tell: Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) stumble upon a hidden Wayne manor room of armor and weaponry, explaining the inspiration for the costumed alter ego.

From Boss Grissom’s mafioso penthouse to the Axis chemical plant and a quack surgeon’s back alley office, Anton Furst’s set design is among his best (in an impressive career that unfortunately ended with the artist’s suicide in 1991). Also noteworthy are Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Bob Ringwood’s costuming and Danny Elfman’s resonant, Wagnerian score, all done under the guidance of Burton, elevating pulp into anarchic poetry. Like the Burton-helmed sequel, Batman consistently surprises enough to nearly render its flaws secondary. 

Still from Batman (1989)Nicholson’s Jack Napier shines most when he wrecks havoc upon pop culture, sabotaging consumer products and brooding over popular media’s not so subliminal sales tactics. The chief flaw of the film lies in a lack of a substantial female character, which Batman Returns (1992) remedied in spades. Vale is merely there as a decoration for Bruce Wayne’s arm. A second noticeable flaw is in the intrusive music by Prince (otherwise, a very good artist during his youthful prime). However, the related MTV videos were considerably better, and a wonderful example of how big a pop phenomenon Batman was.

Homages to ‘s Metropolis (1927), ‘s Vertigo (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) are prominent, but, for the most part, Burton keeps cinematic references down to a minimum, something he would not do in Batman Returns (1992). Naturally, Tim Burton’s Batman is not as much guilty pleasure fun as “Scooby Do Meets Batman” or “Superfriends,” and it certainly isn’t the delicious morsel that Adam West gave in his legendary camp take on the character. Yet, Burton manages to make a tale of two sociopaths, spawned from the gutter, into highly stylized entertainment.

Batman was birthed by the then new graphic novel trend, most notable Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight.” The script was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on Bob Kane’s original characters. The violence in Batman is comic bookish and stately: the Joker fries a mafioso with a hidden hand buzzer, and the murder of boss Grissom is devoid of blood. At times, the film seems to be enveloped in a Tex Avery ‘toon: after mating with his girlfriend, Wayne hangs upside like a bat, the Batplane soars upward to the moon (creating a bat signal), a joker card is flipped over with Carl Stalling-like sound effects foreshadowing Napier’s fate, the Joker’s hand melodramatically emerges from acid, the silhouetted Caped Crusader moves like wet ink atop a roof, and the Joker shoots down the Batplane with a gun that looks like it might have been ordered from Acme supplies. The henchmen are really not too far removed from Cesar Romero’s sycophants. Batman is crepuscular, and, thankfully, it’s never realistic. 

Apart from Heath Ledger, Nolan’s believed-to-be superior Dark Knight is devoid of humorous touch and is so utilitarian, with one plot too many, that it is doubtful the film would have worked without the late actor’s turn as a pathological clown.

Unfortunately, neither Burton nor Keaton went beyond their two entries in the series. Perhaps a man dressed up like a bat might revitalize both artists.           

READER RECOMMENDATION: PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)

Reader recommendation by “Brad”

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mark Holton, Elizabeth Daily, Diane Salinger

PLOT: Pee-Wee Herman, the eccentric childlike persona of Paul Reubens, sest off on a strange and dreamy cross country search for his prized bicycle after local rich “kid” Francis (Holton) steals and the sells the bike.

BACKGROUND:

  • This was weird auteur Tim Burton’s first feature length film.
  • Burton was hired as director after Paul Reubens was impressed with his early short films “Frankenweenie” and “Vincent“.
  • Phil Hartman, the late great comedy performer/writer, contributed to the script, along with Reubens and screenwriter Michael Varhol.
  • Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was also Burton’s first collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, whom he’d work with frequently throughout his career.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There is a lot of visually weird eye candy here: for example, dead truck driver “Large Marge”‘s frighteningly cartoonish face as she describes her body being dragged out from her crashed truck in an iconic stop-motion scare.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: An eccentric lead, situated somewhere between child and grown man, who lives in a house of self-made gadgets and toys, cross-dressing with a convict, creepy clown nightmares, stop motion dinosaurs, and a meta-Hollywood ending: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure doesn’t let up on strange situations.

Pee Wee's Big AdventureCOMMENTS: I am sure this is usually passed off as some juvenile movie with quirky humor, but it truly is a great collaboration between two originally weird minds. This isn’t Tim Burtons’ film. This isn’t Paul Reuben’s film either. It’s a perfect merging of both. Coming off of his live performance show, the “Pee-Wee” character gained a cult following, allowing Reubens to get this film made. Lucky us. The film is quite warm, although there are plenty of bizarre and dark images throughout. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a labor of love. A definite “passion project.” We see some early Burton stop-motion experimentation, which he later used in many films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, etc. Of course this film also helped start Burton’s film career as a director, which led to some of America’s weirdest film projects. Reubens took the Pee-Wee character and created the equally bizarre children’s show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…somewhere between a parody of kitsch and a celebration of it, and it has the bouncing-along inventiveness of a good cartoon… 26-year-old director Tim Burton shows his flair for the silly-surreal.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, , Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones

PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.

COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, .) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s.  This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of . (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One problem is that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as [Edward] is: Everyone in this film is stylized and peculiar, so he becomes another exhibit in the menagerie, instead of a commentary on it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)