Today: April 22, 2024

It’s hard to believe that the man whose unique vision brought us films such as Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands began his career on the Disney production line. But then, most of Tim Burton’s life seems to have been spent out of step with the world around him.

It’s hard
to believe that the man whose unique vision brought us films such as
Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands began his career on the Disney
production line. But then, most of Tim Burton life seems to have been spent out
of step with the world around him.

Born in Burbank, California in 1958, Burton began drawing at
an early age, and went on to study animation at the California Institute of the
Arts. The Institute is a well-known training ground for Disney animators and it
was no surprise that, soon after graduation, Burton was drafted into their
ranks. For someone who had spent his childhood immersed in cult movies, the
structured creative world which Disney offered him wasn’t exactly thrilling.
Never-the-less Burton was able to prove that he could produce the goods, with
work on mainstream projects such as The
Fox And Hound
. This dedication led to him being transferred to the
Conceptual Art Department. Here he had the opportunity to become involved in
more inspiring projects like The Black
Cauldron
as well produce some short films of his own. These included an
animated tribute to Vincent Price, Vincent,
which won two awards at the Chicago Film Festival.

Personal
Projects

For Burton, Vincent was an intensely personal piece of work.
He’s reported as saying later that Price’s films gave him a natural outlet for
his more melodramatic side, and helped him channel his teenage angst into
something more positive. Unfortunately, Disney weren’t impressed. A later live
action film, Frankenweenie, in which
a young boy brings his dog back from the dead, was even less enthusiastically
received and eventually deemed unsuitable for release. It seemed that Burton
was just too odd for mainstream animation although, ironically, it would later
be Disney, and an ex-Disney colleague, Harry Selick, who would eventually bring
his Brothers Grim-style fable A
Nightmare Before Christmas
to our screens. Even more telling is that,
almost 20 years on, Disney will also be backing his 3D stop-motion remake of
Frankenweenie, which is due for its cinema release this October.

Fortunately, however, lady luck was about to step in.
Although, back then, Frankenweenie didn’t get an official release, bootleg
copies eventually reached the desk of actor Paul Reubens, who was looking to bring his Pee-wee Herman persona to
the big screen. The rest as they say is history. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure cost just $7 million, but made a whopping
$40 million profit in the US alone. An achievement which gave Burton enough
cachet to finally do things his own way.

Decidedly
Different

As far as most fans are concerned it was undoubtedly Beetlejuice which started the Burton
bandwagon. The story hung on the attempts of the nice, ‘recently deceased’
Maitlands to force their home’s new owners to leave; with a little help from
the abominable Beetlejuice. The film made a staggering $80 million dollars,
bagged an Oscar from Best Makeup and spawned a cult animated series (1989-1991)
on which Burton worked as Executive Producer. Story-wise neither film nor
animation were ground-breaking. What really captured the public’s imagination
was Burton’s (now) trademark mix of dark comedy and Gothic imagery — with
gross-out visuals that no Goth kid could resist. And it’s this mish-mash of the
cult and the cute, the weird and the well-known which Tim Burton has made all
his own.

There are few Directors who stamp their personality on their
work in the same way as Tim Burton. Thanks to his artistic training, his films
are always visually compelling — blending the traditions of Hitchcock, Hammer and RKO — with his
own unique world view.

Yet, Burton’s work is more than simply dark, moody and
Gothic. The worlds he creates often seem surreal by their very ordinary-ness.
Take the Middle Class suburban neighbourhoods he conjures in Edward Scirroshands, Mars Attacks! and Big
Fish
. It was neighbourhoods like this in which Burton grew up and it was
his insider-outsider experience which helped him to draw out the true oddness
of places where, conventionality can be stranger than anything the movies can
conjure.

Visually stunning Burton’s films may be, but, what keeps the
fans coming back for more, is the integrity of his work. Yes, these are films
which are dark, humorous, strange and striking. But they’re also films with
real heart. Burton’s heroes — Edward Scissorhands and Icabod Crane (of Sleepy
Hollow fame) — are often the outcasts and the misunderstood. It was a viewpoint
which he drove home with aplomb in Mars Attacks! where the heroes are the
outcasts and geeks. And the jocks, the jerks and the gung-ho politicians get
what’s coming to them.

Stranger
And Stranger

With Batman too, it’s easy to see why for Burton, a
character like the Batman was so
compelling. The Batman, lives in a world of extremes — black and white, good
and bad — and to Tim Burton those extremes are simply irresistible. It was a
film, though, which could so easily have been a disaster. There was a very
vocal campaign which demanded that the movie return to charming camp-ness of
the ’60s TV series. While other fans would countenance nothing less than the
Dark Knight in all his dark glory. Burton’s solution was to do what he always
does — create his own vision. One which cast comedian Michael Keaton as Batman, against Jack Nicholson’s crazed Joker.

Oddly, though it was Batman which gave Burton his first
experience of the negative side of fandom. While the Burton supporters loved
his quirky casting choices, Bat-fans hated it and launched a tirade of abuse
about his choice of Michael Keaton as Batman. But Burton steadfastly refused to
be swayed. What won Keaton the role wasn’t his physical prowess. It was his
ability to ‘act with his eyes’ – to covey the tortured soul behind the mask.
The director made the same controversial choice of lead with Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. At
the time Depp was widely known for his role in 21 Jump Street, whose macho Tom Hanson couldn’t be further from the
child-like Edward. Again, Burton was drawn to Depp’s ability to give depth to
his creations. It was important to him that his characters were more than just
well-portrayed. They needed to have real soul.

Sadly, in recent years, the Burton movie machine has shown
definite signs of slowing down. There have been fewer projects and fewer true
gems. Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate were hits
though, many fans would argue, neither delivered anything new. While Planet Of The Apes and Sweeny Todd were soundly slated by the
critics with his most recent Dark
Shadows
plot was as soulless as it’s vampire protagonist. But then Tim
Burton is in an almost impossible position. That nice niche he’s carved out for
himself is in danger of becoming a rut. So should he just abandon the coolly
creepy Burton-esque world he’s created and try something new? Or could the much-mooted Beetlejuice 2 be the film to recapture
that Burton magic without the Burton clichés. If the news from filmland is true
– and Keaton and Burton are backing a sequel – then we may soon see for
ourselves.

Dark Shadows is in cinemas now and Frankenweenie is released
17th October 2012.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email: writerpaula@icloud.com

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