by Gareth Negus
Among the many things for which Tim Burton can be held responsible is the fact that I am writing for this website. His second feature, Beetle Juice (1988) was the one that, more than any other, ignited my interest in film. I’m not suggesting it’s the greatest film ever made (that would be Tremors, clearly), but it was among the most imaginative and unusual I had seen up to that point in my life. It introduced me to the idea that filmmakers could take a melange of influences and craft something new and personal from them, and sent me out into the street thinking: I want more like that. (It also introduced me to Winona Ryder, something else for which I remain grateful.)
After that, I started to watch pretty much everything that came to the local three screen Cannon cinema and, later, the arthouse cinema in the nearest city. I taped films of all description off late night television, some of which sucked, some of which were brilliant.
But throughout it all, I retained an affection for Burton, the first director other than Hitchcock whom I had recognised as an auteur. It wasn’t all good: the Batman films seemed more interested in bizarre characters than storytelling, but made enough money that the phrase ‘A Tim Burton Film’ became a viable part of a marketing strategy. Mars Attacks was all over the place. But there was also the sublime Edward Scissorhands, one of the very few films that make me well up every time I see it, and his masterpiece Ed Wood.
Ed Wood remains Burton’s greatest film; it’s surprising to note that the project originated with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski rather than with Burton himself, given how perfectly it channels his affection for oddball auteurs and outsiders. He certainly leaped at the chance to direct it, admitting that he felt some affinity with Wood, the man regularly (if lazily) held up as the worst director of all time. In particular, he sympathised with his endless optimism. “That kind of delusional quality can really help you in the film industry,” he says on the film’s DVD commentary.
Burton also says of Wood, “To see a distinct style… you can’t completely say it’s bad, there is some power to that, when you can identify a person’s style.”
It’s certainly always been possible to see Burton’s style. And yet since Ed Wood, his films – while clearly his own from a visual perspective – have felt less and less personal. The fact that his least successful film had also been one of his most acclaimed (and had earned an Oscar for Martin Landau, one of Hollywood’s elder statesmen) seemed to mean that Hollywood was happy to work with him – but they preferred the Burton who made Batman rather than the one who made sweet, idiosyncratic films in black and white about forgotten directors. And so, Burton’s films started to look increasingly… Burtonesque. The trend started with Sleepy Hollow, reached its absolutely nadir with the abysmal Planet of the Apes remake (which I like to tell myself was directed by some other guy whose name just happened to also be Tim Burton). Dotted around the quality spectrum, we have a number of adaptations of familiar literary texts, most notably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. You can picture studio executives in meetings, saying “It’s a bit oddball… You know who would be perfect for this? Burton!”
Making Burton the director of choice for adaptations and franchise projects that don’t quite fit Hollywood’s picture of the mainstream sometimes works; I liked Sweeney Todd. On the other hand, it also gave us the rambling and shapeless Dark Shadows, which looked far more fun for Johnny Depp than it was for the audience.
Burton’s latest, Frankenweenie, about a lonely little boy who reanimates his dead dog, is his first for some years to be based on his own story. A remake of a short film he made in 1994 at Disney (who didn’t like it), it harks back to the early days of his career, while also serving as both an introduction to, and summation of, his ongoing themes and influences.
Burton’s other notable short, Vincent – which was seen in cinemas on the front of Edward Scissorhands – is also about a boy with few friends and a vivid imagination; the sort of boy we have to assume Burton was, or saw himself as. Frankenweenie sees that boy playing with his favourite toys again. For those of us who recall the younger, more interesting Burton, that’s something of a relief.
And the characters in Frankenweenie really do look like toys, in a good way; stop-motion creations that feel solid and three dimensional, without the need for special glasses. At the start of the film, they’re behaving just as the young Tim Burton could have, as Victor creates short films with his pet dog as the hero.
There is also the comfort that comes from old collaborators reuniting. We know without having to check that yes, that is Winona Ryder providing the voice of Elsa; and while I was momentarily disoriented at the impression that Mr Rzykruski was being voiced by the late Vincent Price, I was reassured to discover it was, in fact, Martin Landau.
Unlike the likes of Beetle Juice (a 15 certificate on its original cinema release, though it now plays uncut without complaint on afternoon television) Frankenweenie is aimed at a family audience. I can only assume that’s the reason it’s in 3D – presumably someone decided that that’s expected nowadays. If so, the kids who are seen to demand 3D might well be surprised to find that the whole film is in black and white. (I see no reason why that should put a sensible child off, though I suppose it may dissuade their parents.)
Many of the children being taken to see Frankenweenie will probably be too young to have seen Burton’s back catalogue, at least in cinemas. If they know him at all, it will likely be for Alice in Wonderland, one of his least interesting films. So there’s no reason to expect them to get gags like the way an electric shock creates a white streak in a poodle’s black hair in the fashion of the Bride of Frankenstein. They may not recognise that Vincent’s attic looks a lot like his namesake’s laboratory. They won’t care that Vincent’s parents are seen watching a Hammer Dracula film on TV, or that the giant tortoise at the climax is modelled on Gamera. But that probably doesn’t matter.
At the time of writing, the film has just opened weakly in America; it’s bad luck that ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, which draw on superficially similar source material, have beaten it into cinemas. If Frankenweenie is minor league Burton, it is at least superior to the likes of Dark Shadows, where he seems to be pretty much on autopilot. If it does little more than set out his stock images and interests, it does so with plenty of charm – and, I hope, will do so before a new, and potentially receptive, generation. If it leads them to Beetle Juice, Edward Scissorhands, or indeed to James Whale, that’s a pretty good legacy for a personal film about one boy and his dog.
Frankenweenie opens the London Film Festival tonight. It is released in the UK on Wednesday 17 October.
Gareth Negus tweets at twitter.com/GarethNegus