Friday, December 4, 2009

Wunderkind No More?

That's a picture of director Tim Burton's wife, actress Helena Bonham-Carter, as the Red Queen in Burton's upcoming live-action version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Burton's films are instantly recognizable as his, even when they don't star Johnny Depp (which, lately, is never).

20 years ago, Burton was Hollywood's wunderkind; a film prodigy whose like had never been seen before. His visual style was new and unmistakable, even in his first feature film, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, starring pre-scandal Paul Reubens as man-child Pee-Wee Herman on a quest to retrieve his stolen bike. The script by Reubens and the late, great Phil Hartman, was loaded with cheesy and often hysterical jokes, punctuated by Burton's own weird sense of humor.

Take this scene for example, in which Pee-Wee and the curiously hot Judd Omen as escaped convict Mickey, drive through the desert at night:

You can't really see it in this clip, but the increasingly bizarre road signs that they pass are very obviously (and deliberately) on wheeled carts. And of course, late character actress Alice Nunn practically steals the movie with her hilarious performance as the ghostly trucker Large Marge.

Burton's next big picture was 1988's Beetlejuice, an odd comedy starring Alec Baldwin; Geena Davis; Jeffrey Jones; the always amazing Catherine O'Hara; a then-unknown Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton as the titular "bio-exorcist." Beetlejuice (a corruption of the name of the celestial body, Betelgeuse). It's here that mainstream audiences are first given a glimpse of Burton's particular style:

Then came Burton's adaptation of the classic Superhero Batman. Originally derided for the casting of Keaton in the title role, Burton's Batman went on to become both a critical and box-office success, spawning several sequels, including Burton's own Batman Returns.

I must admit a certain love for the Batman, but Joel Schumacher went on to destroy the franchise (until Christopher Nolan revived it with two amazing films, much later). Between the two Batman movies, came Burton's most personal film, Edward Scissorhands, his first collaboration with Depp and the first time I fell for Depp's huge eyes (and when I realized what a fine actor Depp actually was). Edward Scissorhands is a sweet fairy tale about theultimate outsider co-starring Ryder; Dianne Weist; Anthony Michael Hall; Kathy Baker; Alan Arkin; Conchata Farrell; O-Lan Jones and Burton's idol, the late, great Vincent Price:

Burton next wrote, designed and produced the amazing stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, again featuring the voices of O'Hara and Reubens along with Chris Sarandon, Wiliam Hickey; Glen Page and long-time musical collaborator Danny Elfman:

Burton's follow-up my well be his best film, ever. Depp stars as "Z" grade director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Ed Wood, a romanticized biopic about the infamously bad director. It earned co-star Martin Landau a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as the aging Bela Lugosi and fully cemented Burton's reputatin as an A-List director:

Then came the underrated, all-star Mars Attacks!, the movie that Independence Day should have been, featuring an early performance by then-unknown Jack Black:

Ed Wood was followed by Sleepy Hollow (again starring Depp) and an ill-advised re-make of Planet of the Apes, starring Mark Whalberg; Bonham-Carter; Tim Roth and genre legend David Warner. 2003 saw Burton's adaptation of Daniel Wallace's novel Big Fish with Billy Crudup; Albert Finney; Ewan McGregor; Jessica Lange and Drag Me to Hell star, Allison Lohman. The story of a son coming to grips with his dying father's tall tales, Big Fish was a critical, if not financial success. It's visuals are rather amazing and its performances even more so. Big Fish never found the audience it deserved, probably because it was just a little too weird:

Burton's follow-up? A new version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While Burton's version is actually more faithful to Dahl's book, it was unfairly compared to the 1971 version starring Gene Wilder in an admittedly career-defining performance. Still , I personally prefer Burton's version starring Depp as Wonka: Freddie Highmore as Charlie: the quirky and underrated Missy Pyle and cult-icon Deep Roy as all of the Oompa-Loompas:

Burton's follow-up was another stop-motion story, Corpse Bride, which featured the voices of Depp; Bonham-Carter; Emily Watson; Tracy Ullman; Joanna Lumley; Jane Horrocks; Richard E. Grant; Christopher Lee; Michael Gough and Danny Elfman in a macabre love story:

Sadly, Burton's hit-or-miss career most recently included the dank, grisly and humorless version of Stephen Sondheim's career-defining operetta, Sweeney Todd. Mis-casting Depp as the title character, Burton turned Sondheim's masterpiece into a bloody horror movie, missing the show's point, entirely. Of course, my opinion of the movie has nothing to do with do with my own performance as Todd in what may be a definitive production directed by my friend (and probably the best theatrical director I know), Dale Simon. Burton's film? Lame:

Dreamworks didn't even trust Burton to advertise the movie as a musical. Sad. Depp's reedy tenor is all wrong for the baritone that Sondheim imagined, thought Bonham-Carter is quite brilliant as Mrs. Lovett, as are Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Sacha Baron Cohen as the fraudulent Italian barber, Pirelli.

So, Burton's next film is due this spring, and from everything we've seen, it's definitely a Burton film. But will it be a good one? Only time will tell. As a lover of Carroll's works (and nonsense in general) I can only hope that it will be wonderful. But given Burton's track record of late, I have my doubts. Here's the latest teaser:

So, what do you think? Is Burton still the genius he was in the late 80's and early 90's, or has he lost his touch? Enquiring minds want to know... Personally, I hope Alice is a huge hit, though I will withhold judgment until I actually see the film. Lord knows, we could have been subjected to this, if Burton had been given the go-ahead to make his veriosn of Superman.

Just a reminder, there will be no Caliban's Revenge post tomorrow. Read my ramblings instead on the Zombie Zone.

More, anon.

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