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Great Debate: What The Hell Happened To Tim Burton?

Is Tim Burton in a rut? His latest film, Dark Shadows, which marks his eighth collaboration with Johnny Depp, hasn’t been building much positive buzz, and while Alice in Wonderland set box-office records, it left critics cold (earning a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

But Burton and Depp delivered a stellar musical concoction in the Oscar-winning Sweeney Todd, and there are those who argue the director’s take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory surpasses Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory from 1971. So if Burton’s in a funk, as many are arguing this week, how deep does it run? And can he pull himself out of it? Sean and Kristy discuss in our latest Great Debate.

Sean: Kristy, I'm seeing far too many columns on the web asking when Tim Burton "jumped the shark," "fell apart," "became such a hack" and so on. While I understand that Dark Shadows isn't his best effort (for various reasons), I'm not ready to condemn him to the realm of his beloved Ed Wood. Are you?

Kristy: Wow. I hadn't thought of it in that extreme of terms, but you know what? I am. I feel like he has no perspective on his work anymore and it has become retreads and camp without depth. And I say this as someone who was once a major fan and admirer of his work.

Sean: And I still consider myself a fan. I'd love to know when you started to realize this about Burton. Was there a film that set off a warning light? Because I thoroughly enjoyed his take on Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And while his Alice in Wonderland was more flash than emotional resonance, it made a FORTUNE.

Kristy: Yeah, over the years I've gone from an ardent fan to an apologist to disappointed to flat-out annoyed. As to where it started to fall apart for me, I remember being underwhelmed by Sleepy Hollow, but it wasn't until The Corpse Bride that I began to worry he was out of ideas. I enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd the first time I saw them -- both eagerly, opening weekend. But when I watched them later on DVD, I was struck by how little I still liked them.

I think he makes money because he's great at style and spectacle, but there's so little substance anymore his more recent films aren't as worth revisiting.

Sean: I'd like to bring up Big Fish at this point of the debate, but I know it would likely bring our conversation to a screeching halt, so we'll circle back around to it. I can't really speak to the re-watchability of Burton's films, because I haven't gone back to them that often outside of Nightmare Before Christmas (which isn't his, really) and Charlie, because my kids like them. But with Dark Shadows, for the first time, I did begin to notice how recycled Burton's visual elements are starting to feel. And I get that there's a "Tim Burton" visual template, and that's fine. I often anticipate the latest Burton to see how he can wrap his established influences around whatever source material he has chosen to adapt. And I want to emphasize what you've said, because even though I agree that Shadows is unfocused, I never tired of the film's beautifully gothic style. Still, to this day, I could stare at Burton's films without having to pay THAT much attention to this thin content. Maybe that's a problem.

Kristy: Yeah. I'd say Dark Shadows is a far better poster than it is a movie.

Sean: Oh, I think the whole movie sounded GREAT as a pitch! Probably over bottles of wine! But then they had to actually film something, and they were a bit lost.

Kristy: I think it's too big a story to tell as a movie, and I say that with only a vague familiarity with the original property. But it's like you say, he takes an old story and then gussies it up with his own goth style and boom: movie. It's glossy, but that's often about it. He's become predictable, like that College Humor sketch from a while back pointed out: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, outcasts, black stripes, white pancake makeup, Danny Elfman, etc.

He takes stories with such promise and possibilities and makes them the showy source material for Hot Topic trends. I realize this may be coming off as glib, so allow me to admit Tim Burton was one of the first directors I was ever aware of and loved. I grew up on his Batman movies, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, but I don't think he's developed as a filmmaker.

Sean: OK, I have a theory. And here's where we'll get into Big Fish. Because I believe that's where Burton dared to lay his soul bare. It was a love letter to father figures. Probably his own. Definitely to men who were like Albert Finney's character. I know that's why Big Fish gripped my heart and squeezed it, because I saw my father -- and our relationship -- on screen. So it worked for me. But in general, it was overlooked. Yes, 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, but $66.8M at the box. This after Sleepy ($101M) and Planet of the Apes ($180M). He puts himself out there, and is rebuked. So he retreats, and plays it safer from there on out. "I'll give the people what they want!" Not necessarily, "Here's what I want. Follow me, or don't."

Kristy: I can see that. Personally, I didn't connect to Big Fish, but you're right that it was a departure stylistically, that people seemed to ignore.

So, you're saying we're to blame for bad Burton movies?

Sean: Ha! Indirectly, yes! More people should have loved Big Fish. But really, I'm not ready to dismiss Burton when you can argue that two of his last four movies were really good. And you do admit to liking both SweeneyCharlie. Right?

Kristy: The first time I watched them, I enjoyed them, yes. But the second-time I was repulsed by Charlie and all its garishness, and with Sweeney I realized that the duo of Depp and Burton cut out much of the comedy that I so loved in the stage productions of that musical. Like I said, the spectacle is appealing, but once you look past it ... what's there? Sweeney is a pretty desolate story without the humor for relief.

Sean: Not that we have ANY influence over what Tim Burton does -- and if Dark Shadows does well at the box office, it's only going to convince him to keep playing it gothically safe -- but as a former admirer, what would you love to see him do first? Try a totally different genre? Stop working with Johnny Depp? Retire?

Kristy: I would love for him and Depp to breakup their collaboration. They're a dangerous duo. They both love oddity so much that they offer little else in their collaborations. But for Burton to win me back, I think he'd have to do something visibly different. Not a remake or adaptation, or a feature version of an earlier short like Frankenweenie. I want to see what other stories he has to tell. Burton's aesthetic has always been odd, but when he was just starting out, his style was something we hadn't seen before. Now it's all we see from him. The same color palette, the same pale faces and stripe-laden costume design, at least one willowy pale blonde in the cast. Watching Dark Shadows I realized I could pretty easily create a mash-up of most of the film from his past works. It's hit the point where its basically self-plagiarism.

Something not about dead people!

I do want to like his stuff again. It's why I saw Dark Shadows, despite my reservations.

Sean: And though I'm supposed to be the Pro-Burton side of this argument, it's hard for me to go against anything that you've said above. While I haven't grown completely tired of the Burton aesthetic, and think it fits certain stories, I would love to see him make a movie that doesn't fit the description, "Tim Burton's take on FILL IN THE BLANK." He doesn't have anything on the docket after Frankenweenie -- yet another recycled bit -- so maybe there's hope?

Kristy: I don't know. I worry he's beyond redemption/caring. Dark Shadows is overloaded by lazy storytelling, from voiceover to montages, nostalgia and a soundtrack stacked with popular tracks to do the heavy lifting.

But I want to be wrong about this. I really do.

Sean: And I want you to be wrong, as well, because then it means Burton's back on the right track. We'll keep our bony, white, skeletal fingers crossed and hope for the best!

Staff writer at CinemaBlend.