Annals of the Over-rated: Tim Burton

March 26, 2010

America (and the world) has spoken: The less-than-mediocre “Alice in Wonderland” is a hit.


Allow me to disagree. Tim Burton is Exhibit A for my unified theory of movies, which goes like this:


You can be a great storyteller without being a great filmmaker. But you can’t be a great filmmaker without also being a great storyteller.


Under that equation, Burton will never be a great filmmaker because story is so much of an afterthought in his movies. Sometimes that matters more than others – but it is Burton’s great failing as a filmmaker (evidenced by his awful “Alice in Wonderland”) and what makes him so overrated as a director.


I will stipulate to several things about Burton: that he has directed films that I’ve enjoyed (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Ed Wood,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and all of “Sweeney Todd” except Helena Bonham Carter’s wretched singing).


I’ll also agree that, as stylists go, Burton has one of the most fertile imaginations working in film today. He has the eye of a visual artist (hence, the ongoing exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art).


But as a storyteller, he’s generally a flop. He’s always so enamored of his imagery that story regularly lands on the backburner while he indulges his artistic whims, at the expense of pace, momentum and story logic. Yet he’s been kicky and kinky enough to seduce otherwise serious critics into buying his emperor’s-new-clothes act for more than two decades.


Here comes the sacrilege: I never thought that either of Burton’s “Batman” movies worked. I drew howls of protest when I slagged “Batman Returns” in my “Alice” review earlier this month (“I hate to break it to you,” wrote one commenter, “but ‘Batman Returns’ was a hit”). But I’ll go further and say that Burton’s “Batman” wasn’t much better.


That film, which starred Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, is still something of a touchstone for a certain generation of filmgoers who happened to come of age when the film was released. If you see it through the lens of nostalgia – remembered from a period of raging hormones and emotional upheaval that are the high-school and college years – no doubt “Batman” has a cherished place in your heart.


Yet, as a comic-book movie, “Batman” is pretty deadly. The essence of the genre is action – along with tension, jeopardy, excitement and humor. But “Batman” has only humor – and self-aware, campy humor at that, of the type most identified with the TV series of the 1960s. Honestly – a Joker heist set to a Prince funk score?


The action itself in that film looked murky and clunky; it had no zip, no bite, no visceral tang. It only got worse in “Batman Returns” and perhaps, by comparison, that first Burton “Batman” seems strong. But watch that film – and then watch Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” No contest.


I’ll go further and say that others of Burton’s best-loved work is weak at the story-telling core, including “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow.” In each case, Burton loses track of his story to focus on his effects, winding up with a comedy that’s never as funny as it should be (“Beetlejuice”), a fantasy that’s so lightweight it almost disappears off the screen (“Scissorhands”) and a reworking of a classic story (“Sleepy Hollow”) that seems like one long, gory joke.


As for  “Planet of the Apes,” well, whoever had the idea of taking a traditional sci-fi-action film and turning it over to Mr. Storykiller, they got what they deserved.


“Ed Wood” works because it is more of a character study than a story, built around a beautifully nuanced performance by Johnny Depp and strong supporting work from Oscar-winning Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray, among others. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is still fun because it grew out of Paul Reubens’ sensibility, as filtered through Burton. And, with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Burton had enough respect for the material to hew more closely to it.


I doubt I’d like “Alice in Wonderland” better if Burton had given it a different title, one that didn’t promise a Burton interpretation of Lewis Carroll. But that’s what the title implies, though obviously not what Burton had in mind.


Instead, he’s appropriated Carroll’s characters and concept, then made as bland and laggard an action-fantasy as I’ve seen since the original “Clash of the Titans” (another movie that absolutely didn’t beg for a remake because it was so stupid the first time).


Sorry, but while I’ll always be interested in what Burton does next, I go into his film with my eyes open to the fact that telling a story just isn’t a priority for him.


And that’s why he’ll never be a great filmmaker.




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