Tim Burton returns this weekend with his 19th feature film as director: a live-action version of Dumbo. While the lingering fascination with his films, and the cultural lure of a reimagined Disney gem like Dumbo will unquestionably draw in significant box office, there is no longer huge critical salivation at the prospect of a ‘new Burton’.
It’s hard to say when precisely this transition took place. The late ’90s and early ’00s might be the barometer for the slight drop in Burton’s critical cachet. For me, it was Burton’s hugely disappointing Planet of the Apes retread in 2001, where neither his fantastical ingenuity, nor the allegorical resonance of the 1968 original, remained intact. This directorial mellowing or gentrification is a common phenomenon in the film industry, and who knows why it often takes place?
Could it be that age diminishes the guerrilla spirit of a young tyro? Maybe successful filmmakers become neutered by success and their increasingly snug positions in the establishment they once stood outside? Or, perhaps, in Burton’s case, the development in digital technology over the last two decades has counterintuitively bloated and diluted what was once a fêted handmade aesthetic?
To remember why Burton was a filmmaker so anticipated and lauded for his ingenuity and that highly distinctive aesthetic, it’s worth looking back at his golden period – the late ’80s and early ’90s – where he ascended to the top of the Hollywood tree with a run of beloved hits: Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1991), Batman Returns (1992), and Ed Wood (1994). In particular, Burton’s two Batman films, where he had to integrate his familiar gothic fantasy style into a pre-ordained narrative universe, are well worth exploring to recall the texture of Burton’s skilled world-building.
You could loosely describe Burton’s directorial signature as gothic romanticism. There’s usually an establishment outsider, there’s often a clash between these outsiders and the “normal” world, the universes are cloaked in dark colour schemes and haunting surroundings, and there’s invariably an ethereal Danny Elfman soundtrack to underscore the action. With Batman, still resounding in the contemporary public consciousness as a kitsch, pop art figure from the ’60s TV series (although many people were familiar with the original Dark Knight comic iteration of the character), Burton went surprisingly po-faced. He watered down the impish fantasy aesthetic of his previous film Beetlejuice, and reimagined Batman in a retro Art Deco landscape, alongside a more noirish, ’40s crime movie vogue.
It’s certainly one of the more sober Burton films, and Michael Keaton’s detached, quizzical, unheroic Batman suited the ambience perfectly. Commentators often rewrite the film as a showcase for Jack Nicholson’s unrestricted indulgence and clowning as the Joker, but watch it again, and it’s actually a nicely pitched, dramatically convincing portrayal of a psychopath. A scene that rarely gets mentioned, but showcases all that is best about the Keaton and Nicholson casting, the film’s surprisingly dark undertone, and the futuristic Art Deco motif, is the Bruce Wayne-Joker stand-off in the stunningly designed apartment of Vicki Vale (an excellent Kim Basinger).
With Batman Returns, Burton eased the portentousness of Batman a touch, and envisioned Gotham City more through a fairytale lens. The Christmas setting (the falling snow a motif carried over from Edward Scissorhands), the archetypal Danny Elfman score, and the slightly more childlike and kitsch feel to Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, saw Burton find the ideal equilibrium for Batman – something that Joel Schumacher’s camp, cartoony numbers and Christopher Nolan’s deadly serious Dark Knight trilogy pulled in completely opposite directions. Although there was still the retro look for Gotham City itself (an early establishing shot is a near doppelgänger for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), everything else was just that little bit more fun.
Take the lovely pre-credits framing narrative of how the hideous Penguin came into being: filmed in a sweeping fisheye sequence that reveals the horror of his parents when bringing this aberration into the world. And then Burton conceives of a beautiful opening credits sequence – something that would shame a Bond film – as the Penguin is abandoned by his parents into a river, which takes the baby literally and figuratively into the sewer, exemplifying the underworld existence he is condemned to and coloured by, until he attempts to re-enter normal society some 30 years later and in the present day of the narrative.
And it’s perhaps the image of the grown-up Penguin – seething with resentment and jealousy, clamping onto the iron bars of the sewer grill, looking out at the wondrous, Christmas-infested Gotham City he has been excluded from – that puts the seal on Burton’s beautifully moving mastery of form and content in his best work. How Burton is always able to tap into the pathos for even the most atypical of characters – the melancholy of the outsider. Here’s hoping Dumbo can see him capture some of that old magic again.