Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Birthday Take: Tim Burton in "Frankenweenie" (2012)

Scene from Frankenweenie
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Tim Burton
Born: August 25, 1958 (57 years old)
Nomination: Best Animated Film (nominated) for Frankenweenie

The Take

Probably one of the toughest questions to answer is if Tim Burton is a great director. The quickest answer can be "No." This would mean looking at his recent work, specifically from the past 15 years, post-The Planet of the Apes. It was a time when he became more than just this weirdo outsider. His trajectory can be seen alongside Johnny Depp's, who was just as weird and brought a certain flavor to mainstream film. For what it's worth, you can say that Burton hasn't been a great director in recent years because, what has he really done? Beyond Sweeney Todd, Big Fish, and Big Eyes, his output has mostly been remakes of popular franchises that look the part of a Burton film, but have none of the passion thrown in.

Here's my argument roughly. He can be a good director. In fact, his early work is some of the most distinctive directing and visuals to come out of the 80's. You cannot mistake Beetlejuice for another director. He was pioneering the style back then in a manner that was ambitious and not the normative. I don't know that his style is often imitated nowadays, but I do feel like the familiarity has sort of hurt his quality overall. Where he was this beloved b-movie inspired filmmaker, he became popular enough to turn everything he ever loved into his own creepy vision. Imagine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows. Why do any of those need to be made? Well, because Burton can make them creepy in a way that isn't Sam Raimi or Wes Craven horrifying. He crosses the middle ground that fits within a PG-rated box.

The one fascinating thing about Frankeenweenie is that it embodies perfectly why his work is best summarized as a yes/no equation in the annuls of great directors. For starters, this is a film based off of a short (which is actually really good) he made early on in his career that lampooned Frankenstein iconography. There's plenty of obvious reasons that you'd want to make that movie with a bigger budget, and in stop motion. It is eccentric and highlights what Burton and his baroque sensibilities could bring to the table. If anything, it looks just as good as any of his other films circling this project. It is reliably creepy and depending on your viewpoint, it is actually a pretty good movie. Is Burton a good director? In this regards, yes.

Yet, I cannot get on board with Frankenweenie. The original short is fantastic, but the remake is very reflective of what makes Burton problematic in his later years. The film is loyal to the short, which takes up most of the first 30 minutes. However, it is when he's asked to do original content that things begin to get murky. Suddenly he relies on the familiar tropes of peril and fat shaming. His style is forced to pander to the audience he originally wasn't making movies for. He wants to be an outcast, but what he ends up making is something that is desperate to be loved. Also, it tears away from the Frankenstein iconography so heavily that the consistency of the characters feels disingenuous. It is silly, thus sacrificing the heart that was met at the start of the film.

Is Burton a great director? I still don't know largely because his later career is too distracting from his early days when he was the weirdo that we loved. Now, he feels like an identity crisis who wants to be loved but still be weird. His films are definitely distinct, rarely matched in visual style. However, there's very little else that makes his new work engaging. True, he made Sweeney Todd into something exceptional, but that feels like a rarity. It feels like he understood that he didn't have room to joke around and instead gave something more honest and raw. Maybe that is what's necessary. Maybe we need to see that ambition again in projects that aren't presumably going to make a billion dollars. For what it's worth, Big Eyes was a nice start, though I'll only be impressed when he can do this for more than one film at a time.

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