The prevailing theory is that Tim Burton’s movies are about brooding loners because he’s a brooding loner. He may be but his protagonists are decidedly not. They have boundless enthusiasms; their optimism is supercharged. When Pee Wee Herman wakes up after dreaming of winning the Tour de France there’s not a flicker of disappointment on his face, because his reality is as magical as a dream. When Ed Wood’s play is savaged by a critic, Ed remains upbeat because of a throwaway line about costumes. What lingers from “Big Fish,” Burton’s most mature (if not his best) film, is the sunny, can-do smile of Ewan McGregor. Even Edward Scissorhands (in Burton’s best film) is an optimist, despite his ailment. He’s smart enough to be wary of people, yet optimistic enough to trust them with an open heart.
Burton’s a conundrum. His films are ambiguous about fundamental aspects of life — usually a sign of maturity — but both sides of this ambiguity tend to be adolescent. Communities are stultifying, monochromatic traps ... but the only safe place. Families suck ... but I’m so, so lonely. He gives us moments of pure cinematic magic ... and then blows the story. Nothing has changed my original thought about “Big Fish”: It’s a movie about a great storyteller told by a lousy one.
Burton is a lousy storyteller because he invariably sacrifices plot and character and probability for imagery. Batman in his bat-plane strafes the Joker on the ground and misses, while the Joker is able to pull a very long gun from his trousers and shoot down the batplane? With one shot? That’s gotta be the worst bat-equipment ever. Ed Wood suddenly can’t deal with backers messing with his vision and needs a drink in a bar in the middle of the day? What happened to his supercharged optimism? And what exactly is the point of the town of Spectre? What does it represent? Why doesn’t it resonate?
In the commentary track to “Ed Wood,” Burton talks about his affinity with the world’s worst director. “Nobody had his style,” Burton says, and then talks up the little things Wood included that made his films his own. “That’s something I try to do in my films,” Burton says. “You have your own kind of cryptic messages in there — cryptic things that most people wouldn’t understand but are important to you. Things that kind of keep you going through the process.”
What are Burton’s cryptic messages? There’s the obvious: The acute angles, the bizarre hairstyles, the world tilted slightly on its Seussian side. Recently I was walking along Wacker Drive in Chicago with my brother-in-law, Eric, and we came upon a bizarre piece of public art: Three small, silver heads on wire sticks.
“Creepy,” I said.
“Reminds me of Tim Burton,” he said.
He was right, and it’s worth contemplating. I doubt people say of anything: “It reminds me of Tony Scott.” Or James Cameron or even Steven Spielberg. Nobody making movies today — except Terry Gilliam — has as defined a visual style. Burton is a recognizable original. It’s why he seems perfect to re-make “Willie Wonka.” If, that is, you want to re-make it.
Less obviously, Burton is in love with bad stuff. He grew up on comic books and B-grade horror films and he’s never really grown past them. His main characters are often painted a deathly white: from Pee-Wee Herman, Beetlejuice and the Joker to Edward Scissorhands, Bunny Breckinridge and Willie Wonka. There’s a love of death in his movies. In the upcoming “Corpse Bride” he finally gives in to necrophilia.
He loves bad puns. “I am not a human being, I am an animal!” the Penguin says in “Batman Returns.” “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” Ichabod says in “Sleepy Hollow.” In back-to-back movies (“Mars Attacks!” and “Planet of the Apes”) we get variations of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” line. “Extremism in the defense of apes is no vice!” You begin to groan under their weight after a while. Or just groan.
He loves fakery. In the commentary track to “Sleepy Hollow,” a cardinal alights on a branch and Burton tells us: “The fake cardinal. Which I ... love, actually.” In his heart of hearts he wants to be a B-picture director but he’s stuck with A-list stuff. He’s too talented to be as bad as he wants to be.
We are family
The overwhelming concern in Burton’s movies is generally this: What replaces a corrupt or non-existent nuclear family? In “Beetle Juice,” two dysfunctional families, one dead and one alive, learn to raise a child together. Ed Wood surrounds himself with a family of misfits who help him make his bad, bad movies. This theme is at its most adolescent in “Mars Attacks!,” when two dysfunctional families, a trailer trash family and the First Family, blow up, leaving behind a pretty adolescent girl (Natalie Portman) who gives a gawky teenaged boy (Lukas Haas) a medal and asks, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Gorsh!
One reason why “Big Fish” is his most mature film is that it concerns the healing of, rather than the dismissal of, a nuclear family. The father isn’t a martinet (“Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) or benevolently dead (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman”). He’s a charmer. The son has grown up in reaction to the father — needing facts the way his father needed fiction — but he’s a recognizable man rather than one of Burton’s skinny, gawky boys. In the end the son becomes more like the father, as we all do. We fight our fathers only to become them.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” sees, unfortunately, a return to his man-boy protagonists — but with a difference. In his early films the world learned from these gawky boys (like Pee Wee and Edward Scissorhands); now these gawky boys (like Ichabod and Wonka) learn from the world. That’s progress of a kind.
Someone else’s dreams
The real shock with “Charlie” is that it’s as ordinary as it is. Some sets — the chocolate river, the super-white TV room — look the same as in the 1971 original. Where’s the spectacular vision? In “Ed Wood,” Burton suggests that a crappy, personal vision trumps an okay, corporate vision — that you shouldn’t spend your life making someone else’s dreams. But Burton’s recent re-makes feel merely okay. They feel like someone else’s dreams.
“Big Fish,” for all its faults, is the hope. It’s mature and personal and gives us moments of cinematic magic: Time stops for Ewan McGregor; Jessica Lange climbs into the bathtub with her drying-out husband. In one shot, Helena Bonham Carter’s face lights up as her new house is revealed to her. I remember when Tim Burton’s movies made me feel the same way. Here’s to supercharged optimism.