The Problem With Tim Burton

Let’s play a game.  I’ll name five directors.  Four of them have averaged at least $100 million per film at the box office.  You pick the odd man out:

  • Steven Spielberg
  • George Lucas
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Tim Burton
  • Gore Verbinski

If you went with Coppola, as in the dude that directed The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation, you were right.  As of 2010, Coppola averages just $32 million per film.  Comparatively, a director like…say…oh I dunno… Tim Burton, rakes in nearly $116 million per film.

Now there’s an obvious pitfall here that should be avoided, and like your average cynic/Pitchfork writer, I understand quantity does not always equate with quality.

Now say it with me: “Two-Hundred Fifty Million Dollars”

Still, would you believe that Tim Burton is eighth on the all-time highest grossing directors list?  Well he is, and his films average more than industry hacks like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands are snippets of a motley filmography and Burton’s unique vision.  They encapsulate that signature balance between the grim and the quirky, and along with Beetlejuice, are arguably the director’s most recognizable films.  Since then, Burton has watered down his particular off-brand of weirdness with big budget projects like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and last year’s Alice in Wonderland, all reboots of extant franchises.  While it isn’t fair to call Mr. Burton a “sell out,” it seems strange that the rich vision of his oeuvre has stagnated in recent years.

This ultimately begs one question: When was the last time Mr. Burton followed through on an original idea?

The short answer appears to be the fatter and lamer cousin of The Nightmare Before Christmas, 2005’s Corpse Bride, which Burton co-directed and based his script off of a Jewish folk story.  Dammit.

Big Fish (2003) seems like the next obvious choice.  I have to admit that I personally despise this film, so much in fact that I’ve received (temporary?) ostracized status within my personal circle of fellow film douchers until I admit my transgressions and repent at the Altar of Crudup.   If you’re not already familiar with it, Big Fish is an original sprawling southern epic that puts a quirky spin on the classic tale of the Dad who cried wol- err fish.  Really, what’s not to love about that ending?  Billy Crudup carries a dying Albert Finney into the lake, all the while revisiting the bevy of terrible half-truths upon which this damaged father-son relationship has been built.  It’s an endearing moment, crammed down your throat for two glorious minutes before arriving at its emotional cadenza where Finney becomes the eponymous creature itself, even if that only really happens through the imagination of a single character.  Or something.

Ah, the power of lies.

So I’m not the biggest fan of this movie…   But at least it’s an original idea.

Well this is a bit awkward.

2001’s Planet of the Apes obviously isn’t the answer, but it still serves as a flagrant example of Burton putting his mark on something purely for the sake of putting his mark on something.

[Note to self: Think of something better than “Ape-raham Lincoln” before posting]

In the interest of time/Netflix Instant Watch, I’m going to halt my breakdown here and get right to the point:  Out of his 14 films, Tim Burton has only made three that were not ported from another film, story, comic book and oh-fuck-yes a collectible trading card game.  That includes two superhero flicks, five adaptations, a biopic, and a trio of franchise reboots.  Now original ideas don’t always yield fantastic results, but it’s hard to deny that Tim Burton’s visionary career owes a great deal to brand recognition.  What’s more, I couldn’t help but think of someone else:

Even if it goes against every fabric of your being, please bear with me.
Rapper, mogul, and hustlers’ rights advocate, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is arguably the greatest hip-hop artist of all-time, and in addition to his musical success, founded Rocawear, owns a sports bar, and has a financial stake in the future of the New Jersey Brooklyn Nets.  Sadly, a 2010 Forbes article estimated his total worth at a paltry $450 million, though I suppose that isn’t that bad for someone with only eleven consecutive #1 albums.
At his best, Hova strikes a balance between tailor-made singles and a thematic album.  With 2001’s The Blueprint, Jay-Z brought in fantastic production and some of his best rhymes to create an introspective release rivaled only by the autobiographical Black Album, an album Carter claimed was his last.  As of 2011, Jay-Z’s comeback (don’t call it that) has reached a near Favre-ian plateau with three subsequent solo albums and several collaborative efforts.  His most recent, Watch the Throne, promised a grandiouse hip-hop team-up for the ages.  Of course a string of Kanye/Jay-Z joints sounds amazing.  Obviously I’m going to buy it.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter that the album side-steps America’s expanding grocery list of contemporary problems to boast about G450s and the never-ending streams of Dom Perignon rivers.  Of course we know you’re rich.  Obviously this is a disappointment.
More importantly, Jay-Z’s music career has gone the way of a publicized peek-a-boo game with the rap industry:

Maybe it’s just me, but I think Hovito might be phoning it in by rhyming “O five” with “O nine,’ and he didn’t even release an album in “O eight.”  Ah screw it.  Let’s give it it to him anyway.  He’s Jay-Z!  Clearly there’s not a plethora of creative material to be mined when sitting at the top for over a decade.  It seems that Carter’s days of mammoth ninety-second verses are at an end. Of course Jay-Z isn’t the sole perpetuator of Ferrari Testarossas and designer brands in hip-hop, but how long before we decide that rapping for eight bars doesn’t exactly qualify as going “HAM?”

Tim Burton is the “Jay-Z” of today’s film industry (or maybe that’s the other way around).  They both insist upon themselves; whether it’s guest starring on six different albums or bringing a unique “vision” to a well known story, the message reads the same: “Hey, look at me! Over here!  I’m still relevant!”  Both have worked hard to achieve success and notoriety, but that rosy image starts to fade when the persona exceeds the work that made them successful in the first place.  I enjoy a Gothic barber’s pole aesthetic and Danny Elfman as much as anyone, but is it right to praise something simply because of where it comes from?  Simply because he’s a “brilliant visual artist?”

To reiterate, Burton’s last original film was Edward Scissorhands in 1990.  I turned two that year.


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