Nearly all of us, if asked, could instantly point to a handful of films Tim Burton has directed, so distinctive is his style. Yet despite this distinctly privileged position, it’s not hard to detect an undercurrent of weariness with the man and more specifically, his work. Why is this, how did it happen, and when? These are questions that need addressing.
To identify the moment Tim Burton seemed to lose his way, we need to understand the intrinsic properties of a Tim Burton film. If we were to distill all of his great works, what core ingredients would we see?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. His films invariably star either Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter or both, a trait for which he is routinely ridiculed (see Depp’s cameo in Life’s Too Short for a prime example). Burton is also known for the distinctive gothic aesthetic he brings to his work, as well as recurring motifs of darkness, childlike fantasy, ostracism and black humour, to name but a few.
Most of Burton’s films, even those less well received, contain some if not all of these fundamental elements. The ill-fated remake of Planet of the Apes is the only one of his directorial features which seems out of place in his gothic canon. This begs the question as to whether Burton has ever really ‘lost’ it as such. While he may have overplayed his hand in some outings (did anyone else feel like Alice in Wonderland was like watching Burton on speed?), has he ever lost touch with his distinctive style?
A browse through Rotten Tomatoes may shed some light on this. If you arrange all of Tim Burton’s films to date in chronological order and plot their respective Rotten Tomatoes scores on a graph, you get the following picture:
While it’s undoubtedly true to say that the critical response to his films has steadily declined over the years, the trend is not without its outliers. Sweeney Todd and more recently Frankenweenie were received positively, each earning major Oscar nominations, for Best Actor (Depp) and Best Animated Feature respectively.
What this view does suggest, however, is that after his first six films, ending with the critical high-point which was Ed Wood, Burton’s next outing in Mars Attacks! began a critically erratic phase of occasional highs, but more profound lows. It was followed by two more relative failures in Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes (though we’ll fight anyone who tries to claim Sleepy Hollow is a bad film – Features Ed). After that, Burton was never quite as consistent again.
On this basis, therefore, one could argue that the point at which the public started to lose faith in Tim Burton was Mars Attacks!. But that doesn’t seem quite right, does it? After all, since when has critical opinion alone been sufficient to explain public attitudes to film?
We need to draw in some other factors.
Alice in Wonderland made over $1 billion worldwide. That places Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll’s classic above such box office behemoths as The Dark Knight, Finding Nemo & Dory, seven of the eight Harry Potter films and all three Hobbits. Granted, box office success is no surefire indicator that a film is playing well to audiences – step forward Transformers: Age of Extinction – but given that Alice was released 14 years after the previously heralded nadir of Mars Attacks!, it’s hardly a sign that Burton’s appeal was on the wane.
Burton’s history with blockbusters is, however, mixed. Digging into the financial data reveals an inverse relationship between the success of Burton’s films and their critical reception. His top-grossing film – Alice in Wonderland – is also viewed as one of his weakest. By contrast, his most critically acclaimed film, Ed Wood, is his least successful in terms of box office revenues. Beetlejuice, if you’ll pardon the phrase, appears to be Burton’s sweet spot, as it proved both a hit with critics and at the box office.
For the most part, what is clear is that the more commercially successful Burton’s films are, the less likely they are to enjoy a good reception. Moreover, it’s noticeable that all of Burton’s top five grossing films are interpretations of well-established properties, whereas his less lucrative (but arguably more authentically Burtonesque) ventures tend to be more original in their conception.
So where does this leave us? On the basis of the commercial and critical evidence presented, it can be convincingly argued that despite our assumption and the occasional slip here and there, Burton continues to enjoy a privileged place among cinemagoers.
And yet that doesn’t seem quite right. There is a hint that Burton’s dalliances with big-budget movie-making and beloved established properties, though undoubtedly lucrative, have cost him something far more valuable. Four years after the debacle that was the Planet of the Apes reboot, his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though critically and commercially well received, seemed to leave a bitter taste in the mouth for audiences who still harbored fond memories of the 1971 classic starring the recently departed Gene Wilder.
Add to that Burton’s aforementioned tendency to cast Johnny Depp and ex-life partner Helena Bonham Carter in his films and you get the sense that audiences have slowly become exasperated with his beguiling predictability. Between 2005 and 2012, Burton made five films, all of which starred Depp. A once fruitful partnership suddenly started to sound like a stuck record. One could not be present without the other. Perhaps unfairly for a man of such renowned directorial flair, Burton has seemed tied to Depp’s dwindling fortunes and audiences seem less inclined to remember the halcyon days of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.
But this would be to do the man a disservice. Ultimately, declarations of Tim Burton’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. As the evidence demonstrates, some 30 years after his first directorial feature hit the big screen, he still retains the ability to connect with both audiences and critics. Unfortunately for him, most of the seminal works for which he is known, such as Scissorhands, were released in the early stages of his film career. Much like Tarantino, who will forever be best remembered for Pulp Fiction, perhaps Burton’s name is too inextricably linked with Edward Scissorhands – a career high-point from which descent was the only possibility.
Burton has always seemed more comfortable when he’s unshackled from the burden of shepherding a much-loved property into cinemas, and is instead given a freer rein. In this regard, his new film – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – looks like an astute compromise. Based on the novel by Ransom Riggs and adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman, the ingredients seem to be in place for a return to form for Tim Burton. Add to that the recent announcement that he’s directing a sequel to Beetlejuice (the aforementioned Burton ‘sweet spot’) and it’s clear that Tim Burton isn’t quite finished yet.