Tomorrow “Dark Shadows” will hit theaters, the latest gothic entertainment from director Tim Burton and his muse Johnny Depp. And, as per our review and many others, it’s sadly another disappointment; another wonderful-looking, empty picture that seems to have been derived from the filmmaker and his star taking on the kind of film that’s expected of them, rather than something to push or challenge them.
But once upon a time, Burton was one of the most exciting filmmakers around, a former Disney animator who moved into the live-action world with an enduring family comedy classic, and went on for a nearly-decade-long run of critically acclaimed box-office hits that established him as having one of the most distinctive, unusual voices in Hollywood. With “Dark Shadows” bumming us out this weekend, we’ve decided to provide an antidote by examining five of the most essential Burton directorial efforts in the filmmaker’s career. Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below. And let’s all keep our fingers crossed that this October’s “Frankenweenie” turns out to be the return to form that it looks like it could be.
“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985)
With all the Best Movies lists circulating the web this week (though they should more accurate be read as “My Favorites” rather than Best), it’s a bit of a head scratcher that Tim Burton’s feature-length debut (and pièce de résistance), “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” remained absent. A modern day riff on “The Odyssey” or “On the Road,” this fruitful Burton/Pee-wee collaboration is one of the big screen’s most classic and epic journeys, centering on an innocent and eccentric young boy who embarks on the biggest adventure of his life across the U.S. in search of the beloved bicycle that was stolen from him in broad daylight. After a feverish and desperate examination of the facts, chance and fate send Pee-wee across the country to Texas. Along the long and winding road our hero meets and befriends escaped criminals, dangerous Hell’s Angels, a kind Francophile waitress, and eventually ends up on the Warner Bros. studios film lot where he finds his precious best friend bicycle. Deeply funny, absurdist, endlessly quotable and yet, somehow strangely poetic and beautiful, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” arguably Burton’s masterpiece, is perhaps the perfect movie: It’s 90 minutes on the nose, its three act structure is impeccable, Danny Elfman’s score is his best, and Burton stays out of the star’s way. Its meta-conclusion, as Pee-wee shirks off the James Bond-style action film based on his life starring James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild, because hell, he already lived it, is just brilliant. It also raises the great Shakespearean existentialist question that lingers far after the movie is over: I know you are, but what am I? Criterion Collection, it’s your move.
After “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Burton had already been hired by Warner Bros. to develop “Batman,” but the studio was reluctant to greenlight the picture until the young director had further proven himself. Fortunately, a script for a dark supernatural comedy called “Beetlejuice” came along from writer Michael McDowell, who’d penned “The Jar,” an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that Burton directed in 1986. After a rewrite by Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren to lighten the tone a little, the film turned out to be a monster hit, and saw the go-ahead given for “Batman.” And it’s no surprise. A canny subversion of haunted house cliches, which sees recently deceased couple Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) trying to evict a garish family from their marital home, aided by their goth-y daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) and the sinister ‘bio-exorcist’ of the title (Michael Keaton), the film was fiercely original and visually extraordinary, truly marking Burton as a talent to watch. So much of what would become his hallmarks are pioneered, from the intricate production design (by Bo Welch) to the like-nothing-else stop-motion special effects, but it’s also funnier and looser than much of the director’s work, the spirit of Pee-wee still running high. One forgets, given the merchandising that followed, that the title character (a comic tour-de-force from Keaton) is featured relatively little, but it’s a mark of how good the rest of the cast, from the game duo of Baldwin and Davis to future Burton favorites like Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O’Hara and Ryder, that you’re never biding time waiting for his next reappearance. Talk of a sequel, to be penned by “Dark Shadows” writer Seth Grahame-Smith, has resurfaced in recent months, but one hopes that all involved only go ahead if they can match the original.
“Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
After “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” proved huge hits back to back, Burton was allowed to make something closer to his heart, a return to the personal, melancholy feel of early shorts “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie.” Avon Lady Peg (Dianne Weist) comes to a mysterious, Gothic old home that overlooks her suburban home, and discovers the titular Edward (Johnny Depp, in his first work with Burton), who was created Frankenstein-style by an elderly inventor (Vincent Price, in his final role) who died before he could complete his creations, leaving him only with fearsome scissors for hands. Peg adopts Edward into her home, where he befriends the rest of the family (including Alan Arkin as dad Bill), and soon falls for her daughter Kim (Winona Ryder), but the townspeople soon prove to be less welcoming than they first seemed, thanks in part to the machinations of Kim’s boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall). Falling somewhere between a fairy tale and a classic Universal monster movie, it was easily the purest Burton experience yet seen on screen, but there’s a humanism Burton has rarely matched since. Depp’s heartbreaking, near-silent performance is, of course, at the heart of it, but Burton was for the most part sympathetic towards the townspeople too: the Boggs are about as perfect an adoptive family as you could ever ask for, and, while they’re eventually turned against him, everyone else is initally warm and non-judgemental towards their freakish new arrival. Accompanied by perhaps Danny Elfman‘s finest ever score (well, that or ‘Pee-wee‘…), it’s probably the quintessential Burton picture.
“Ed Wood” (1994)
Marking the end of the director’s unbroken run of smash hits (presumably because it was a black and white biopic of an obscure, cross-dressing, failed director), “Ed Wood” has since rightfully taken its place as the favorite of Burton’s films among cinephiles, and as one of the greatest pictures about making movies. Johnny Depp, in his second of eight collaborations to date with the director, plays the title character, the famed helmer of microbudget B-movies like “Glen or Glenda” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (the latter of which is widely regarded as the worst film in history), and it remains one of his very best performances. He brings a certain cheap ’50s matinee idol charm, like a flea market Cary Grant, and a cheery hopelessness that makes him entirely winning and entirely human in a way that Depp’s performances rarely do. As with “Edward Scissorhands,” there’s a wonderful non-judgemental quality to the film, from the crew of freaks and weirdos that Wood gathers around him, to his sexual proclivities and his total lack of talent, while the script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is hilarious and sweet, particularly in its tender depiction of the friendship between Ed and morphine-addled horror icon Bela Lugosi (an Oscar-winning Martin Landau), which gives it perhaps the greatest emotional heft of all the director’s works. Perhaps most importantly, it’s enormous fun, thanks to the supporting cast that includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Max Casella and a scene-stealing Bill Murray, and the general let’s-put-on-a-show-right-here celebration of glorious low-budget filmmaking, which makes you want to pick up a rubber octopus and a movie camera as soon as the credits roll. Between this and ‘Scissorhands,’ maybe Burton and Depp should only be allowed to work together on movies that start with the letters E and D?
“Big Fish” (2003)
There was some debate internally as to what should fill this fifth slot: the “Batman” films had their defenders, some fought for “Sleepy Hollow,” and even “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Sweeney Todd” have their fans. But ultimately, we landed on his 2003 literary adaptation, a film once intended for Steven Spielberg. Telling the tall tales of the life of Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor as a young man, Albert Finney as an older one), whose relationship with his son William (Billy Crudup) has become estranged over the years due to his far-fetched anecdotes of giants, werewolves, magical towns, conjoined twins and witches, in many ways it has the ingredients of a classic Burton picture. But despite the whimsy, which is admittedly sometimes overpowering, the director keeps himself on something of a leash. Bloom’s stories are fantastical, but for the most part the trademark Burton look is refreshingly absent, with a brighter, broader, sunnier palette at play. And indeed, the film serves as something of a defense for the director’s storytelling process: does it matter if stories are heightened if there’s an essential truth beneath them? And there is an essential truth here, in the prickly, yet touching, relationship between Finney and Crudup, who are both superb; it’s hard for any son who has a father not to be moved by the denoument, as Crudup embraces his father’s tall tales. Indeed, many of the film’s best moments are the quiet, grounded ones such as Bloom and his wife (Jessica Lange) sharing a bath. It’s perfectly cast across the board, from Ewan McGregor’s wide-eyed sincerity and Alison Lohmann‘s eerie evocation of a young Lange to Steve Buscemi’s lovelorn poet-turned-bankrobber and a pre-Oscar Marion Cotillard as Crudup’s wife. It’s more imperfect than the director’s early work, but it’s also by a country mile his best output of the last decade.
– Oliver Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez