A Lifetime of Tim Burton Films

Illustration by Sydney Gray

I haven’t been to see a movie in the theater in quite some time. It’s been at least a year, maybe two. The last movie I saw in the theater I think was Burn After Reading on opening day so it was a while ago. This past weekend, my parents offered to babysit the kids so we could go see a movie. In Hutchinson, we are rather limited so it was between Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. I am a huge Tim Burton fan and have been watching and re-watching the trailer for AiW for what seems like forever now but after the Willy Wonka experience I was skeptical. I tried to have a good attitude, really I did.

When we got to the theater there was a sign on the door that said there was no heat in the theater showing Avatar so that settled any last-minute bail-out plan I had as far as going to see Avatar instead of Alice. That didn’t stop the people in front of us though who cheerfully paid for 3 adults and 3 children (ALL under the age of 6 might I add) to go and sit 2 hours and 40 minutes in a cold theater. One of the kids had to have been no older than my son who is 3 but I won’t go there in this post. One can imagine the looks my husband and I were giving each other though.

From the opening scene I knew I was doomed. No fancy credit opening or anything just right into it which is okay except it was just a boring scene in a study. Which is OKAY but then my eyes were trying to focus and for the first part of the movie I sat there trying to figure out if the blurriness was for artistic purposes or if the projector was out of whack or what. My husband noticed too and I told him I thought Burton might have been trying to make a point that Alice’s eyes were closed or that she wasn’t seeing clearly, was in a daze, until falling down the rabbit hole. But then she fell down the rabbit hole and the movie remained blurry. I didn’t want to be THAT GIRL who gets up and complains to the theater manager about something as trivial as a slightly out of focus picture but it was incredibly distracting. But this is all beside the point. . .

The first Tim Burton movie I ever saw was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. My brother and I used to watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse every Saturday morning and when the movie came out I was delighted. I’m positive the show and the movie were major influences in my quest to include the arts in my life. There was something about the inventiveness of the show that pushed me to think more creatively, like an inventor, and something about the movie that convinced me that “dark” could also mean creative i.e. Alfred Hitchcock.

The next Burton movie to come out was Beetlejuice. I admit, I was a little freaked-out by some of it but I was 12 years old. I remember being in awe. I had never seen a movie like this before- so full of art! I started to doodle in journals and think about color in new ways. I loved the vividness of the movie and started to understand the importance of set design and costume in a movie. I was beginning to form definite standards for movies I deemed worthy of my hard-earned allowance. First, it had to be artistic and appealing to the eye. There needed to be a reason I was going to see it on a big screen. Burton has never let me down as far as making something enjoyable to watch. Beetlejuice also introduced me to one of my teenage obsessions- Winona Ryder. Burton has never let me down in his casting either. . . errrr except maybe Michael Keaton as Batman but I understand his reasons why he cast him now.

Which brings me to 1989 and me, 13 years of age, blowing my hard-earned allowance to go see Batman in the theater. What do I remember about this movie besides the fact that on opening night I also held hands for the first time with my first REAL boyfriend???? Jack Nicholson! I had no idea who this guy was before watching this movie (my parents, unlike some I saw at the theater today, were strict on what movies I saw). I don’t remember being too fond of the movie- my brother however was CRAZY about it but I remember swimming at the pool all summer long, listening to Prince’s song Batdance from the soundtrack play on the radio every hour on the hour ALL SUMMER LONG. Maybe that’s what drove me away from “regular” radio.

Up until 1990, I didn’t realize that Tim Burton was behind any of these movies at all. Then Edward Scissorhands came out and that changed. I wanted to know everything there was to know about Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder. There was something about the movie that was so unique, so different but not just that it was creative and quirky and had good acting. It was done so well that I actually understood what it was Burton was trying to say about American Suburbia even at the age of 14. THIS is what makes a good movie in my opinion- the trifecta: Good acting, visually stimulating (eye candy), and when the movie has an important message that is conveyed and understood easily by the audience without spelling it out. Instead, you let the script, the acting, and the photography convey the message for you.

After Scissorhands, I never looked at America the same. I saw how ridiculous it was for people to live in houses with perfectly manicured lawns, selling makeup and hosting barbecues all the while pretending to be somebody you’re not. It was also like peering into a crystal ball. I got to see what it would be like entering high school in the next year. But mostly, I got to escape for a few hours, into a world that was magical, and I got to enjoy a story that was neither done before or lacking in moral. Burton inspired me to write because I wanted to be him- I wanted to say the things he was saying!

In 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas came out and I literally almost went out and got a tattoo of that dog Zero. But I was only 16 and I guess I’m kinda glad now that I didn’t but at the time I really wanted to give Burton the ultimate credit and have something he created permanently embossed on my body. After watching this movie (several times) I seriously began to think about art school. This movie had a MAJOR influence on me and I really began to dream big plans for my life when I wandered off and daydreamed.

Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, and Sleepy Hollow are all good but by far the most looked forward to movie for me during those 10 years between 1993 and 2003 was Big Fish. When I was 19 years old I drove my car from Nebraska to Montgomery, Alabama where I lived for 7 years. My last 3 years living in Montgomery, I lived in a section of town known as “Old Cloverdale“. I worked at a little pizza restaurant called Tomatino’s and I frequented a jazz and blues bar called 1048. Huntington College is on the same block.

The movie Big Fish was filmed from January to May of 2003 in Old Cloverdale and I moved from this neighborhood to Minnesota in June of 2002. I would get emails and phone calls from friends in Alabama telling me, “Oh Tim and Ewan are so nice. They come and eat at Tomatino’s every day. Leave us big tips and tell us amazing stories.” or “Oh, Steve [Buscemi]? Yeah, Steve is so great. Real down-to-earth guy. Comes to 1048 each and every night. Sits right in the front row and listens to Sam and Ziggy play!” Nothing agonized me more than hearing these stories! That I could have met Tim Burton and shown him my zero tattoo. Who knows, maybe he would have told me to come along, pack up and join the troupe! Yeah, I know. . . keep dreaming.

But this is what Burton does. He makes it so that I keep dreaming. When I learned he was going to do Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do with it. I also feared he wouldn’t be able to do it justice. After all, the original is pretty damn good even if I can’t stand the look of Gene Wilder. Maybe Burton was a little overwhelmed too. Maybe you only have so much creativity in you and once you exhaust it all your done. People talk about this all the time. Do you quit while you’re ahead or do you just keep making movies? Kubrick didn’t stop and Tarantino won’t so I certainly don’t expect or want Burton too.

It’s hard though. It’s painful to watch someone you once so admired, move into a “slump”. As I watch the tweets roll in and read what people have to say on Facebook, etc. it’s clear people still love Tim Burton movies. But will I pay to see one of his films in the theater again? I’m not so sure. Alice in Wonderland seemed to be the kind of movie I would fall in love with as a 12 year old. For some girl out there, it’s probably like what watching Beetlejuice was for me at 12. Something new and amazing. But now that I am in my 30’s and have seen a fair share of movies, it’s not so new. A part of the movie seemed reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. Other parts reminded me of silly slapstick humor movies that drive me insane . Did the Mad Hatter really need to break into that silly dance toward the end? As the audience roared with delight, I thought to myself, Burton and Depp have sold out. Of course they have to some extent already otherwise they wouldn’t be working with Disney, but this dance scene really pushed the selling out envelope!

In conclusion, it has me thinking a lot. Not only about the movie industry but my own creativity as well. Number 1, I’ve decided I’m probably sticking with independent films if I’m going to a theater again. Thankfully Minneapolis isn’t far away. It just seems to me like “Hollywood” is dumbing down their audience movie after movie after movie. This can’t be good for humanity. Number 2, I’ve decided I need to push myself further creatively. There’s not a lot of room for innovation anymore now that technology has caught up. 10 years ago it would have been impressive for me to have created a 20-minute long stop-motion short. Right now, there are probably 100 12-year olds doing that this very minute, on their own time, with their own equipment. They are the next “Tim Burton”. They will be younger and more tech-savvy, but will they be creative geniuses and what will they do with it? Let them save humanity now.