Tim Burton is no longer a good director. I wanted to get that out of the way at the outset, so that there could be no uncertainty over my feelings w/r/t Tim Burton, Director. He is no longer good at directing movies, he no longer makes worthwhile movies and he no longer makes interesting movies. Tim Burton makes movies that are decidedly Tim Burton-esque while also being undeniably, achingly hollow.
There used to be more to him, obviously. There was a time when he was Tim Burton, Inexplicable A-List director. Why in the world was the guy who made “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice” directing “Batman” movies? Nobody knew, but it worked. His movies were not perfect, but at least they were uniquely his. He had a style and an aesthetic that could not be matched, because his underlying empathy for the freaks, weirdos, oddballs and oddities that populated his movies made the movies more than just set design masking an empty product.
He makes empty products now. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” is a soulless exercise in brand synchronicity, an attempt to fuse the visual language of Tim Burton with that of the established and popular story of Alice going down the rabbit hole. This made it no different than Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” or Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” or Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” because that is what Tim Burton does now. He takes his visual style, his eye for atmosphere, his increasing reliance on effects in place of authorship, his regular players and he happily grafts it onto whatever story crops up.
That is why “Frankenweenie” is a very unusual, and potentially aggravating, addition to the Tim Burton filmography. He has gladly cashed in on established brand names stories for years now, but this is the first time the pre-written story and extant narrative he has exhumed is his own. The original “Frankenweenie” was a short film Burton made before making “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” and it is a brief, vivid and delightful take on the Frankenstein story. It set the stage for Burton’s predilections, of course — the sad, lonely boy at the center — but this was before Burton lost his way, lost his directorial soul, and before he seemingly stopped caring about a job so long as the paycheck was ample and the budget large.
The new “Frankenweenie” comes from the new Burton, which significantly lowers the odds that it will be anywhere near as good as the original. The director making this film is simply not as interesting or seemingly as interested as the director who made the first version. He has more experience, more money, more prestige, a murderer’s row of accomplished accomplices he can call up to participate, and he has the ability to make sure the movie is not only made, but made well, and then he has the reputation and prestige to make sure the movie is seen. But he is no longer a name that can be trusted, and so it is safe to worry about what this hackish and tired director will do with that bright-eyed and inventive young filmmaker’s story. (There is also the obvious problem of trying to expand a short to a full movie, which would face any director making such a film.)
I wrote about this problem back in May, when Tim Burton’s vital $150 million dollar remake of “Dark Shadows” slithered into theaters. (The Johnny Depp part of the equation hasn’t gone away, by the way. As the trailer for “The Lone Ranger” suggests, Johnny Depp is tirelessly trying to chase away any remaining prestige associated with his name.) It’s one thing to remake a property that no one cares about (i.e. “Dark Shadows”), and it’s another thing to remake a beloved property while at least giving it a new paint job to fix it up for a new generation (i.e. “Alice in Wonderland”). It’s taken him nearly two decades, but Burton’s descent into self-parody has finally reached its logical, desperate plateau. In lieu of having something new to say, he’ll gladly show you how he’s gotten worse at saying anything at all.