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Asking the un-askable: Is Tim Burton losing his touch?

March 4, 2010 |  6:30 am

There's nothing worse than pronouncing a director in a slump before his new movie even comes out. And by nearly all barometric measures, "Alice in Wonderland" is going to be a monster hit this weekend no matter what any critic or pundit says; the tracking among young girls alone is more insane than admissions day at Bellevue.

Al But with Tim Burton, there's always something else, some higher, more ethereal standard that makes all form of evaluation, from gushy praise to head-shaking disapproval, seem not just fair but also necessary. Maybe it's the way he tries -- sometimes effortlessly, sometimes laboredly -- to return us to childhood, a high-stakes proposition since it’s such a transporting feat when it works  and such a ripoff when it doesn’t.

Or maybe it's that he set the bar so high earlier in his career with "Edward Scissorhands" and the first two Batman pictures. No director engenders more goodwill but also such great expectations. More than with almost any other filmmaker, with Burton it feels different -- more consequential, more urgent, more personal.

And so maybe, after seeing “Alice in Wonderland” earlier this week and reading some of the lukewarm reviews (see Kenneth Turan's "Alice" review here), it's not unfair for us to ask whether the director has let us down and whether, more dispiritingly, it’s becoming a pattern.

Let’s actually leave "Alice" aside for the moment. Consider the movies Burton has released this last decade. There was, in our opinion, one creative bull's-eye, 2005’s “Corpse Bride,” a movie macabre, touching and inventive in all the right ways. We’ll also give him a pass  on  "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Talking to colleagues these last few weeks about their expectations for “Alice,” we’ve been struck by the cool attitude toward Burton’s Willy Wonka interpretation.  Sure, some of the reverie felt forced, but the picture was about as imaginative a rendering you can give a work that many of us felt like we already had seen plenty of times before, in our mind’s eye, thanks to an evocative work of literature and a vivid, pre-effects-era screen version. At worst, Burton was dwarfed by the material or our memory of same.

But that still leaves several howlers. "Planet of the Apes" was probably the worst of the bunch. In the 2001 remake, Burton tackled an iconic movie. But with a mishmash of biblical references and sluggish exposition, he did a very un-Burton (but very Hollywood) thing -- took an imaginative piece and turned it into recycled ephemera. The director did stick closer to the novel's ending, which won him some bravery points, but that’s about all it earned him; the movie scored a dismally low 44% on Rotten Tomatoes (even lower than the dismal “Mars Attacks”).

Next, he tried something a little more adult in “Big Fish,” but this too was largely a failed experiment. The ending packed an emotional punch, but the flashback-y pilgrim’s progress of the rest of the film became discursive, a kind of Forrest Gump with more self-conscious visuals and a less compelling through line. The attempt to meditate on the nature of family and memory from the point of view of an adult dealing with an elderly parent was a nice conceit, but the marriage of Burton-esque whimsy with earnest emotion  fell flat.

An equally experimental union failed in “Sweeney Todd,” source material that was dark and quirky (and, with period aspects, visually pregnant) that as a result seemed tailor-made for Burton. But although the movie had its supporters, the black ironies of a butchering barber grew thin, the supposedly surprise ending was a snooze, and the attempt to join Sondheim’s moodiness with Burton’s hyperactive imagination resulted at times in unintentional camp, a soupy fog of an English Gothic picture. (Plus there was that accidental comic performance by Sacha Baron Cohen.)

Which bring us to the current moment, and to "Alice." In some ways, Burton is undertaking the same Herculean task as with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": wrapping his arms around an iconic work that we all feel we know and attempting to put such a personal stamp on it that we forget all incarnations that came before. It’s a noble challenge, and if one were giving points for difficulty, Burton would get his share; it's the quadruple lutz of filmmaking.

But there’s too much that happens, or doesn’t happen, as Burton executes this challenge, making generosity impossible. As various reviewers have touched on in various ways, the film’s battle of CGI monsters, worked-on asides, relatively spare story and even its attempts at girl-power politics are often ineffective and, worse, generic. And we feel obliged to point out that although 3D may be the vogue, too often here it looks not like an immersive otherworld but a sixth-grade diorama.

Yes, we chide so much because we care so much. But after this string of disappointments, it’s fair to ask if Burton needs to do something great for that caring to continue.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Johnny Depp in "Alice in Wonderland." Credit: Walt Disney Studios