Tim Burton Learns A Hard Lesson

When Tim Burton became Time Burton in the 1980’s it was at a time when people and critics were embracing the unique director. John Waters, with shows like Hairspray and Cry Baby and Serial Mom, and David Lynch, with Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks, were, along with Tim Burton, making weird cool and brought a quirky sensability to mainstream cinema that had never been given that kind of a voice before. Above all, these directors and their movies worked because they alway felt genuine. All of their films flirted with darkness and whimsy and all of their films seemed a personal representation of who these men were. And apparently, particularly with Tim Burton, we all liked who he was very much. Just look at his first six movies:

  • Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
  • Beetlejuice (1988)
  • Batman (1989)
  • Edward Scissorhands (1990)
  • Batman Returns (1992)
  • Ed Wood (1994)
Those are all the kinds of movies that turned kids into filmmakers, that touch people for years after they have seen the films, and yet still play broadly, being fun for everyone. They are also films that all feel like Tim Burton not only made them but was passionate about them.
In the years since Ed Wood Tim Burton has still made some good movies (The Corpses Bride and I really liked Sweeney Todd) and he has certainly made some popular movies (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) but other than Big Fish (a tremendous and tremendously underrated film) it doesn’t feel like he has made a movie filled with passion and filled with his personality since 1994. That is until this past weekend and the release of Frankenweenie.
Frankenweenie is pure Burton through and through. And obvious labor of love that has been in the making for 30 years. And like those early Burton movies it brilliantly straddles a darkness with a true whimsical core that makes a film in the end more life affirming than depressing. But unlike those earlier Burton classics the audiences stayed away (or more accurately went to go see Hotel Transylvania instead). 
So what is Burton to learn from this failure? Is it that you can’t drive away your fans through years of making films that feel at best like you are simply going through the motions (Sleepy Hollow) and at worst like you are totally selling out (Planet of the Apes) and expect them to come back when you finally do something the right way? Is it that the stink of Dark Shadows will take longer to fade (and it couldn’t have helped that you released the DVD the same week that Frankenweenie was coming out, that’s like Schwarzenegger releasing a tell all book outlining all of the horrible things he did behind his wife’s back right before asking her if she would be willing to give him a second chance)? Maybe each of those are valuable lessons, but I think the bigger lesson is this, a stop-motion, back and white kids movie about resurrecting a dog and the dangers of messing with nature may have trouble competing with a big, colorful, fun, silly movie about Dracula and his buddies who live in a hotel.
But hey, what do I know? I’m fat.