Film Feature: Burton: Hipster or Hapless?

 
 

While Tim Burton is invariably associated with Hallowe’en, Conor Barry questions whether he retains any credibility.

As everyone knows, Hallowe’en is a time for re-watching a bunch of old films and condemning them for not being as good as you remember. With this in mind  now is the perfect time to pick apart Tim Burton’s body of work. While the cynic in o-two was getting all riled up to start hating on Burton when we actually went back through his films it became apparent that he’s, well, pretty good. It seems his talent has been forgotten because he made a few pretty atrocious films. Even though all of his earlier ones only seemed good because of my rose-tinted nostalgia specs, there is some genuine cinematic gold in there. But that was the problem; his pretty poor recent outings have overshadowed some of his genuinely impressive films. This prompted the question: What actually went wrong with Tim Burton?

While it sounds horribly prententious to say that his old work was better, it’s true. Sometimes it seems as if a lot of his new stuff feels a bit soulless. It’s not that there’s any problem with having a set style, which Burton clearly does. The issue arises when he uses this style instead of any actual substance. For all the flashiness of comparatively recent Sweeney Todd, it was just so instantly forgettable because you really don’t invest in the slightest with any of the characters. This only got worse with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which only exists because Burton thought that Gene Wilder’s version was a bit ‘meh’. Even if you’re sitting up and saying that the films looked brilliant and were very enjoyable, well, fine, but that’s all they are. They’re just pretty meaningless cash-ins on his style rather than trying to say or do anything. Alice in Wonderland in particular upset me a little, as it was a complete abomination. She falls down a hole, she wanders around a blurry CGI forest where quirky stuff happens on a green screen. Johnny Depp is there and we all went home. It’s as if he doesn’t really put effort into it anymore and it feels like he’s just arbitrarily picking films that already exist and going “we can make it a bit more black and make that plant sort of twisty and call it a day”.

The type of Tim Burton you want to watch is the genuinely awkward, angsty teenager trying to burst out of the fully grown man. He is one of the most clearly autobiographical directors and nowhere is this more evident than in Edward Scissorhands, which is fondly remembered for obvious reasons. Not only that but you can tell that the entire plot is something Burton actually believed in while making it; Edward’s isolation because of his silly hands and his dark view of the world in comparison to everyone else’s cheery 1950’s view. It was far more genuine and, most importantly, the style reflected the themes. The same goes for Beetlejuice with its cool and freaky style, which existed not just for the sake of it, but because they were necessary to get across the ideas. Then there was Ed Wood, Burton’s love letter to the spectacularly crap film director of the title. Later still there was Mars Attacks, a film that focused on his admiration for 1950s alien invasion films. All of these films actually tell you something about Burton himself, the man behind the big glasses and messy hair.

The main problem is his whole “I’m so weird and nobody understands me” schtick became a bit more difficult to buy when he started having droves of people lining up saying “Yeah, me too”. Burton still clearly picks films about an outsider trying to fit in but the problem is that it doesn’t seem as if he feels like that anymore. Sure, he started off as the geeky little Disney animator who preferred to draw people dying in a spirally tree than Mickey Mouse. There’s no doubt he probably did feel a tad insecure in his surroundings and his first bunch of films reflected this well. It’s just that now that he’s buddying up with Johnny Depp on a daily basis, marrying Helena Bohman Carter, raking in millions for each consecutive hugely popular film and dressing like a hipster in the age of the hipster it’s difficult to buy that he doesn’t fit in.

It seems as if Tim Burton’s films should man up a little. He needs to stop pretending to be little wussy boy who goes on about how we don’t understand him. Of course we understand you, Tim. You’re not all that complicated. Thankfully, there’s a slow but steady criticism of of Burton’s pseudo-angsty ideals and if this keeps up, maybe he’ll make another decent movie. If not, at least we’ve still got Planet of the Apes.

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