Following on from our behind the scenes gallery we posted last week we’re looking back again over the career of Tim Burton and focusing on the eight films released today as part of the two volume Collection DVD set out today.
Going through the films on offer here a picture emerges of a director whose understanding of his own passion and themes is evident through the central relationships in each of his films. The visual design of each film has the unmistakable mark of Burton’s eye and his take on the world runs like a thread through his films both big and small.
With Dark Shadows appearing in cinemas in a matter of weeks there’s never been a better time to look back over the road taken thus far. There are a couple of sidesteps along the way however this collection manages to capture the scope and variety of some of the director’s work and make for a fascinating walk through Burton’s own Wonderland.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
In his first feature film Burton continued his work with Rick Heinrichs, a cohort from CalArts who had worked on both Vincent and Frankenweenie and would feature prominently in Burton’s career including the forthcoming Dark Shadows, and Danny Elfman whose music is as vital a component as any in the Burton toolbox. In many ways Pee-Wee’s Bg Adventure was the perfect feature debut film, given what came after.
It was an adaptation of a previously existing property (something which provides a backbone for his career ever since) yet it was recognisably Burtonesque. The focus on the man/child and his effect and friction with the ‘outside world’ is a theme Burton often returned to, and its possible that it is the spark from which his dizzying flights of fancy begin.
As the dust settled on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure a more Burtonesque caper was being created, one which would take us back to Burton’s playful mixing of life and afterlife, dead and undead with a key casting choice that would ease our passage into the world Burton has been entertaining us in ever since.
Beetlejuice is a wonderfully silly fairy tale, with a neat line in anarchic comedy from lead Michael Keaton as everyone’s favourite bio-exorcist, and it is he and Winona Ryder, as the death obsessed teenager who provides the link between the two words, who are the most fun here. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis do a decent job as the married couple who are killed in the first reel only to reappear as rather crap ghosts moments later and the trips through the door in the attic to the afterlife proper are great fun, as are the grotesque prosthetic masks used in one memorable scene.
We would return to this playful side of Burton’s mind later, but next up was a journey to a darker place: the city of Gotham.
It’s hard to imagine a more suitable director being handed the keys to the batmobile in the late 80s when superhero films had fallen so far from favour with Superman’s Quest for Peace still laying a firm stench in the corner of the public’s consciousness. Bringing the lights down on Gotham city and imbuing a dark and destructive force to a big screen Bruce Wayne gave DC’s hero a much needed kick in the batsuit and though the casting of Keaton as the caped crusader was initially met with a cold stare from hardened fans it proved to be the making of the movie. Jack Nicholson’s Joker seems marvellously over the top in the recent light of Heath Ledger’s take on the character however the playful and dangerous are two sides to Burton which found a perfect mirror in Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego.
It’s hard to imagine Christopher Nolan’s Batman films without looking back to the ground laid by Burton, and though they are very different filmmakers it’s fascinating to see how the two interpretations find differences and commonalities. Burton’s Batman was a huge hit for Warner Brothers, and for Burton it would prove to be the first port of call he would return to a few years later.
It is very unlikley that Christopher Nolan’s Inception would have seen the green light so easily if he had not made a mint with his take on the Dark Knight, and there’s a feeling that Edward Scissorhands represented the film Burton wanted to make following Beetlejuice but needed the leverage from a big blockbusting hit.
Returning to Gotham three years later Burton lets his imagination come into play a little more. The prologue of the penguin is as dark and dingy as anything in the Burton canon, those familiar with The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and his other illustrated poems will know what I mean. To my mind not as successful as the first film, Batman Returns found Burton running cautious riot in his new found sandbox, and Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman are beautifully distorted creations which set the tone for the subsequent, and far less succesful, Batman films.