Tim Burton is a genius.
There’s no getting round that. The man is responsible for many of the most loved and admired films of the last few decades. Infact, he is so revered that people will not hear a word against his films, so enamoured are they with the worlds and atmospheres he has created for them.
So it came it came with some degree of difficulty that I had to finally accept recently, much as I hate to admit it to myself, much as I have denied it throughout the last ten years, that Tim Burton was a genius and sadly is no longer, in short: Tim Burton has lost it. If you haven’t reached that conclusion yourself, you’d best not read on because you may end up wanting to kill me (the adult equivalent of being told Santa Claus doesn’t exist might be too hard to stomach).
As far as his 25 year career goes, it’s still possible to divide his films into two distinct categories: before he started using the word “reimagining”, and afterwards. The last film of his I really enjoyed was 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow”, it’s far from his best film but it’s one of my favourites because, for me, it combines everything Burton does really well. The screenplay is confused and over complicated and bit dull in places but Burton managed to weave his magic so that on a first viewing, you somehow didn’t notice. As a viewer you’re too preoccupied with the amazing forest he conjures up; the performances; Danny Elfman’s score and other visual affects and make-up. His eternal-Halloweened world of eerie, dreary Pennsylvania-Dutch witchcraft is for me, truly spellbinding.
Then we witnessed the spectacular train-wreck that was Planet of the Apes (not even quality performers like Tim Roth could save this deeply ill-judged experiment). Big Fish now appears an attempt to rediscover that essential Burton originality after two Burton-isings of other popular stories (not everyone felt Sleepy Hollow was a success and obviously Planet of the Apes was roundly rejected). Infact this abortion turned out to be arguably the worst film Tim Burton has ever made. It’s twee, self important, meandering, inconsistent, bloated and diabolically saccharine at almost every turn – exactly the kind of film a young Burton, seething about everything he felt was wrong with Disney, would have never dreamed of making. Thinking back now, all I can remember is Ewan fucking McGregor (fresh from being deeply awful in Moulin Rouge!, deeply boring in Star Wars Episode 2 and deeply plastic in Down with Love) standing in a field of daisies, or sunflowers or something, proclaiming his undying love for the heroine. Eeurrggh.
Having established that Burton probably shouldn’t try an original story again for… ever, Charlie and the Chocolate factory sounded a perfect project for Burton to bounce to: “Great! What much loved Children’s story can Tim Burton work his magic on next? Roald Dahl’s classic about Willy Wonka, you say? Er, even though there’s an intimidatingly good version already filmed? Er, great, go for it…” Having found Mark Wahlberg and Ewan McGregor to be too dull to really front a Burton production the obvious move was to get Depp back (the formula has been good in the past, so seeking to recreate it made sense). Dahl’s story’s is already in place so Burton almost neglected to really shape a pleasing script and just concentrated on the weird and wacky world of his central character. It was a shame then that Depp’s Wonka had about 3% of the charm and charisma of Gene Wilder, spoke with a voice that sounded like a cross between Michael Jackson and Doctor Evil and whose appearance resembled Zoe Wanamaker.
The panic appeared to continue with another attempt to recreate the magic of a former success. Live action wasn’t doing it anymore so Burton turned to his first love – animation. Audiences who flocked to The Corpse Bride were expecting another Nightmare Before Christmas except not many people appeared to realise that the main person responsible for the genius of this earlier feature was one Henry Selick, its erm, director. Without Selick, the feature didn’t have the charming story or pleasing little touches that made Jack Skellington such an iconic character and the erm, the main people in Corpse Bride, (oh now… what are their names…?) so utterly forgettable.
Sweeney Todd…, despite being a musical, is in many ways the best thing Tim Burton’s made for a long time. I can’t really fault it, I just don’t like musicals. I found the songs distracting and a bit annoying but they were in keeping with the piece as a whole and much as I’d have preferred them to be stripped out of the film, it wouldn’t have worked without them. It was also nice to see Helena Bonham Carter in a decent role that exhibited her considerable talents well.
So to now. Like everyone else I was utterly, pant-wettingly excited about Alice In Wonderland – the images of the production design and costumes looked so outlandish and inspired that it could be no one other than Burton and – it could be the much longed-for return to form, to rival even something like Beetle Juice. The only note of warning was that Burton would now be working for Disney. His journey to the dark side would be complete. The only question would be whether our Tim could retain his filmmaking identity, complete with all that idiosyncratic genius, or would it be utterly drowned in feel-good schmaltz and put the service of Disney? The results; were disappointing…
Many of the elements were there and the film looks incredible. It’s well cast and I didn’t even mind that a few of my favourite characters like the Mock Turtle and the White Knight and The Walrus and The Carpenter weren’t included. It’s just that it isn’t very interesting. I was more enticed by the promotional stills of the characters than I was with what they say or do in the film and maybe this is because Burton’s job, even before the film was released, was already done. His name’s attached to the project and his ideas have been duly wrong out of him and conjured before your eyes and very little more is required of him for the film to make lots of money. Alice is potentially a more interesting character here than she is in the book but her journey, full of wonder and intrigue when explained by Carroll, is shallow and very un-involving here: the Burton magic is very much weaker now. And if it was strong on a difficult project like Sleepy Hollow, which was mired in development hell for years and only Burton could get it made, but weak here on a epic, heavily backed, Disney, 3-D, CGI spectacular, you’ve got to wonder where the director’s passion has gone (or how he allowed himself to be bullied by the studio). Burton-by-numbers has come to pass for Burton. It’s almost as if he’s parodying himself except it’s not because that would require some effort. If everything during the noughties were failed projects, or attempts to recapture his filmmaking mojo then that’s commendable. The man tried. Tried everything in his repertoire and truly cast about for something worthy of his earlier work. Alice… for me, feels like the first Burton (possibly of many, hopefully not) to be an admission of defeat, it’s almost been phoned-in.
As a devotee of TB, you remember the past greatnesses and convince yourself that this production is going to provide a similar experience and this time it’ll be better. Perhaps better to go back to Wonderland as it was then than to experience the updated “Underland”.