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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

Comments () | Archives (56)

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I'm sorry to report that I winked out at the cast and crew screening last night, and missed the J-slay.

What touch? The man has made a handful of good films (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) and a lot of "meh".

Do NOT heap praise on those Batman films. They are terrible. Jack Nicholson's performance (not even as the main character, mind you, but as the antagonist) in the first, cannot possibly cover up the fact that Burton did not understand the source material. He did not know how to create a blockbuster film, and he still doesn't. Burton's best work is when he limits himself to small scale and one character.

Seriously, the first Batman film is the most undeserved piece of boring, poorly-shot, money-wasting dreck. It's a shame it made so much money (mainly because they were so hungry for a Batman film and everyone loves Jack, not because it was any good) because it somehow resulted in the press anointing Tim Burton and validating his lack of cinematic range.

Watch Batman again, I dare you. Then come back and tell me he set the bar high. It wasn't so high that Chris Nolan couldn't walk right over it, barely trying. Batman Begins isn't such a great film, except that the first Batman film was so very bad, that BB seems like Star Wars by comparison.

You want to see Tim Burton's talent? Watch the two films with "Ed" in the title, and you're finished. Here endeth the lesson.

No, it's not Tim. It's the Disney machine that's incompatible with his creative style.

Tim Burton has been going downhill since "Beetlejuice." He tries so hard to be the "weird guy" that it has gotten boring. I'm really hoping that he came around on this one, but it's probably going to be another huge disappointment.

Wow, I had no idea Burton's last few films were regarded that poorly. I was under the impression that Big Fish was well liked. I personally thought it was a spectacular story with great acting and even better visuals. I also enjoyed Sweeney Todd very much, but I can understand that it wasn't a huge mainstream success. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was different from the original movie, but I thought it was still done really well (and actually followed the book a little closer in spots). And the Corpse Bride was great (albeit, it didn't come close to Nightmare Before Christmas, and people that expected it to are crazy). I do agree that Planet of the Apes was awful. Other than that, though, Burton has done very well this past decade.

Steven, I realize this is just an opinion piece and you're entitled to yours. But it really does smack of an odd combination of a "never tried so never failed" creative attitude and the odd egotism of simply because you don't approve of some of Tim Burton's work that everyone else agrees with you. Again, you're entitled to your thoughts, but when writing about them, have the courage to use the word "I" and let it stand on its own.

I believe that the sentence, "Which bring us to the current moment" has FAR more power if you had written, "Which bring me to the current moment..." You're not in a position to speak for anyone other than yourself. Own your opinions -- don't try to shore them up with unnamed "colleagues", or the royal "we" or "us". That puts you smack into National Enquirer "says a pal" category.

Tim freaking Burton! I'm so tired of his attempts @ trying to top what are already classics and fantastic works. Touching Gene Wilder's performance in the real Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is practically sac-religious. Give us all a break Depp and Timothy & go the hell away until you have something original to contribute. Beetlejuice is easily his all time best by the way. Keaton rocks!

Oh right the first Batman was so terrible that it only set THE standard for every comic book film made for the next decade and it even extends to the Nolan films, the raspy voice, the rubber suit even the finale of Begins takes the poison gas route. Doesn't know blockbusters. The box office grosses would dispute that. Please.

The Burton Batman flicks had something the Nolan films can't even begin to grasp when it comes to a comic book hero. FUN. In trying to elevate the material to some deep psychological modern context they completely lose fact that its a guy running around in a cape beating up bad guys. The Burton films are easily more watchable and entertaining than the solemn glum Nolan films.

Sweeney Todd is one of the best musicals in recent years that worked on every level. It was a perfect marriage of director and material. The reputation of that film will only grow in the years to come.

The author is short changing one the most imaginative directors working within the Hollywood system. But that's no surprise as he has never received the critical respect he deserves for putting a personal stamp on often expensive Hollywood films that are 99% of the time generic and stamped out by committee.

I don't think taking old popular movies or book ideas and rehashing them takes great talent, that is like letting an NBA team go back and play a game over again, then when they win calling them great.

People are tired of the remakes, whether it is a book or an old movie.

Wow way to tear down Burton. Has everyone forgot "The Nightmare Before Christmas?" An extremely original and wonderful movie. People are so against Burton because they do not take the time to appreciate the different way he views things. I challenge you to take the time to be creative and try to do what he is doing and see how you come out. I like that he puts a darker spin on things because we do not live in the fantasy world that Hollywood tries to paint. Alice is going to be a much different movie if people would take the time to actually acknowledge that instead of being so stubborn and bullheaded. Alice is returning to Wonderland...this would mean... sequel wo actually being called one!

The one movie that Tim Burton made that really made me laugh was Ed Wood. Tim could identify with that movie.

Allow me to expand (er, briefly) on what "touch" means for Tim Burton. Limiting the definition of the word to only film shows a complete lack of consideration for his other accomplishments. He is a storyteller and artist. Let's not forget his animation successes (Nightmare Before Christmas) which almost 20 years later Disney is still milking from November to January when it redresses The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. His short "Vincent" is also worthy of mention and praise, as is Beetle Juice which is quirky and well worth the rental 21 years later.

I think the article has a point when bringing up the notion of "what has he done lately". Burton did set the bar high early on and it would be impossible to outdo ones self every time thereafter. Ask Pixar and Apolo Oho. I draw this parallel because they all excel at what they do, but even though they are considered winners in their resperctive fields, they dont get the gold every single time.

I think on the whole when Burton, Depp & Elfman get together its a recipe for success. As we age, it sometime feels good to "fit in" and not always be the odd man out. I think it's a sign of maturity, even if it means a milder less edgy version of ones self and ones work.

Though the premise of your commentary is sound -- Burton misses more than he hits for me -- your examples are a bit off. BIG FISH was a very strong film and Sacha Baron Cohen's performance in SWEENEY was not accidentally funny -- the character IS funny. The problem with SWEENEY was that most of the other humor was taken out, so Sacha's character felt misplaced.

"Did you ever have a touch to lose, man?"--Dignan. Bottle Rocket

Burton's overhyped career as a director has few notable *good* movies mixed in with a heavy dose of bleech. This hagiography of a review/er is a tool. Look at the results of Burton's efforts:

Alice in Wonderland (2010) - unknown

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) - atrocious

Cinema16: American Short Films (2006) (V) - who saw this???

Corpse Bride (2005) -- meh

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) - terrible

Big Fish (2003) - yawn

Planet of the Apes (2001) - pure refuse

The World of Stainboy (2000) - ???

Sleepy Hollow (1999) - effluvium

Mars Attacks! (1996) - yuck

Ed Wood (1994) - double yuck

Batman Returns (1992) - boring

Edward Scissorhands (1990) - meh

Batman (1989) - ok

Beetle Juice (1988) - brilliant

I read the same comments about Avatar before it's release!

Burton's name was all over Nightmare Before Christmas, but the real talent in the director seat was Henry Selick , who recently did Corline.

That being said, I agree with a lot of the comments. Personally, I liked Sweeney and Big Fish.

Big Fish is one of my favorite movies of all time. I disagree that it didn't work well.

I think Burton does best with his own original material. I am not a fan of his remakes like Charlie & the Chocolate Factory or Planet of the Apes but I am hoping that Alice will be differnt. If nothing else, at least Alice looks like a delight to watch it.

First, Cohen's character is SUPPOSED to be comic, we all know what the ending is going to be, and the "camp" was present in the Boradway version as well. Hell, more so. That covers Sweeney.
As for Big Fish, I thought it was great. I wouldn't be surprised if the writer of "Benjamin Button" had it in mind when working on the script; the storytelling for both is quite similar.
Finally, I will never tire of the Burton-Depp-Carter-Elfman/Sondheim combination. They're quirky, they're dark, they're awesome.

Admittedly I have not seen every Tim Burton movie, but the ones I have seen have all been very enjoyable.

I don't think it's so much his style being a problem as it is (if there is a problem) with his love affair with Johnny Depp. I adore Depp, but honestly speaking, he does the same character in every one of his films. The Mad Hatter is likely to be a more over the top version of Jack Sparrow, who was himself very similar in mannerism and quirkiness to most of his other characters.

I'm disappointed that Sleepy Hollow wasn't even mentioned, because I think that was a really great screen adaptation and is my favorite of his movies. But with all of that said:

I was a huge fan of the American McGhee Alice video game, which was dark, gothic, and menacing in the extreme while visually breathtaking. A screen version of that vision has been rumored for years, and when I realized that this was probably it I was - disappointed to hear that it was a Burton film. Not because he's not great, but because that was a virtual guarantee that the movie would be three parts whimsical for every one part riveting and dark. Depp as the Mad Hatter cemented it for me. But I will still be in line with my money. They're too good not to be.

If anything this piece is too nice about Tim Burton, the man has most certainly lost his touch. Corpse Bride being the largest offender in my mind, I didn't think it would be as good as "Nightmare" but dull, bad music and an hour too long... that was really a surprise.

His work of late has sacred me from even returning to his old films, for fear they may not be as good as I remember. Batman certainly wasn't. As a filmmaker, he like Michael Bay has become a cliché of himself.

In answer to "Philbo", I'd disagree, Tim Burton's best films were made when Disney was more involved and could force their way with him more. Vincent, Frankenweenie, Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood... all made with Disney.

Yall is trippin. The first Batman was GREAT. Batman Returns is alright as a kids movie, the next two BLEW. Nolan's two are great AND fun, though obviously most of our sensibilities on fun are different now than in '89...and most Burton movies just aren't that good...he should be some kind of creative consultant on films, but shouldn't direct quite as many as he gets to.

I have been a fan of Tim Burton for a majority of my life( I’m 30). I think he molded me in some ways and his earlier movies are very precious to me. I have been disappointed by his most recent endeavourers and I am not looking forward to "Alice". I think he needs STOP USING CGI! CGI is screen vomit, can movies go back to sets and stages rather than a green screen. I still will see Alice to pay homage to Burton, However as a dare Tim if you are listening ditch Disney and take a camera, an actor and make a low budget film. This big budget movie thing is killing you.

burton is a 20th century director. i liked frankenweenie, pee wee's big adventure, beetlejuice, batman, edward scissorhands, batman returns, ed wood, mars attacks! ( was wildly uneven, but i give it a pass), sleepy hollow. his planet of the apes really cost him. since then i liked the corpse bride and sweeny todd. big fish seemed more like burton answering his critics than actually maturing. i really wanted to see his take on charlie and the chocolate factory...until i saw the trailer. depp's weird for the sake of being weird performance was a big turn off. i didn't bother. now...here we are again: depp (an actor i usually like) seems to be turning in another weird for weirdness's sake performance. i am not interested. the trailer has really turned me off to even wanting to see this film. i will wait for the stop-motion 3-d remake of his own frankenweenie.

Batman is by far the bestest super hero. He has a cape and a Batmobile, which lets him b-b-b-bad to the bone.

I am tired of Burton’s zanier films always having the same actors. I understand that Tim and Johnny are buddies. I know Burton is married to Helen Bonham Carter. However, I am tired of seeing them almost always in his movies. It takes away from my enjoyment of his movies.

Burton does not necessarily need to use fresh faces all the time but a little variety would be nice.

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