Dumbo, the latest film in the increasingly popular cycle of The Walt Disney Company giving their animated classics live-action remakes, opened to mixed reviews but strong box office. It’s the first of three of these remakes audiences will see in 2019, but it stands out as unique because of the presence of a certain Tim Burton. In his 19th feature film, Burton returns to Disney and does exactly what we expect him to. Of course, what we expect him to do in 2019 is very different from what we expected him to do in 2009, and that’s a few steps away from what we expected him to do in 1999.
Burton’s been working since the 1980s, evolving from the weirdo in the offices of Walt Disney Animation to one of the most bankable names at the box office. His films have made over $4 billion at the box office, grossing more than Roland Emmerich, J.J. Abrams, George Lucas, and Clint Eastwood. The guy who was once considered the ultimate outsider to the producer controlled studios of the ’80s is now the model for balancing the books and getting butts in seats. His name draws people to the multiplex in a way that few directors can in the franchise age. You probably didn’t go to see the remake of Cinderella because of Kenneth Branagh but Tim Burton’s name carries a different kind of cultural heft that may get the job done. Of course, with that has come the usual cries of ‘sell-out’. Every time there’s a new Tim Burton film, at least over the past decade or so, we’ve seen the usual cycle of headlines wondering if this latest release is further proof of his depleting imagination or flogging of the dead horse that is his usual bag of tricks. Even when reviews are strong, there’s this unavoidable sense from critics that the bubble will soon burst and everyone will go back to feeling disappointed that this isn’t the ‘old Burton’.
I’ve been there myself, particularly after the minor train-wreck of dullness and corporate exhaustion that was his take on Alice in Wonderland. That combination of source material and director should have been a creative slam dunk, but the entire production reeked of boredom on Burton’s behalf and the overwhelming sense that the true driving force of the film was Disney’s corporate mandate. It seemed so strange that the guy who was once allegedly fired from Disney for making short movies that were too scary for kids was suddenly directing something that seemed like a rip-off of a Tim Burton movie.
Of course, to ask the question ‘Is Tim Burton a sell-out?’ isn’t a simple yes/no question. It seldom is when the notion of the sell-out is raised. For one thing, the people who do say yes won’t always agree on the tipping point for the artist. I really like Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but I know plenty of people who see it as a low point, a true turn for the worst and signal of Burton’s descent into corporate friendly milquetoast movies. I heard the same argument applied to an even earlier film, Planet of the Apes, one of the true disasters of Burton’s career. But then the same conversations took place when the weird dude who made Beetlejuice took the money to make a movie out of the Batman comics way back in 1989. He was considered such a left-of-field choice for Batman and one that many fans virulently opposed, seeing him as too ‘quirky’ and out there for such material. That film ended up being a worldwide success, the sort of earth-shaking moment in pop culture that sends reverberations throughout the entire industry as well as changing the expectations of an entire generation of consumers.
Batman, on top of being way better than you remember it, is inimitably a Tim Burton movie. It bears all the hallmarks of what would come to define the Burtonesque: The gothic stylings and inspiration taken from German expressionism and Hammer Horror; the penchant for moody loners dealing with emotional turmoil; the contrast between the seeming normal and abnormal; all that Danny Elfman music. Batman Returns indulged those aesthetic and thematic whims even further, to the point where many parents complained that the movie was just too dark for kids. But by then, the formula had been set, and while Joel Schumacher certainly took the Batman franchise in his own benippled direction, so much of those films are pure Burton, and those choices weren’t limited to the caped crusader.
Scott Mendelson of Forbes recently argued that Burton only became ‘uncool’ after Hollywood had totally remoulded itself in his image. Burton may have held onto that ‘weirdo outsider’ label for many years but he’s still the guy who started his career on big IPs, and that model is par for the course in the film industry today. It is certainly tough to ignore just how influential Burton has been on the entertainment business since he made his mark. Hot Topic alone owes him billions of dollars. He took the favoured narratives of Hollywood - scrappy outsider underdogs, the kids who don’t fit in, the ever-looming fear of death - and made them the new templates of future storytellers. All of this is certainly true and Mendelson’s case is convincing, but what intrigues me most is that notion of Burton as a studio director, which I would argue he always has been to an extent.
He was never out there digging through the tiny budget independent scene. Burton has always worked with big studios, particularly Warner Bros. While not every film has made bank at the box office and his particular style was never forced into something more conventional, Burton was always in the business of making movies intended for mainstream audiences. Batman was hardly Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Granted, most of Burton’s more esoteric efforts were made at a time when major studios had the money and willingness to invest in an untested product like Edward Scissorhands, but the point remains. Hollywood may have moulded itself in Burton’s image but he was already moulding himself into part of the system.
It’s inevitable that the biggest directors in Hollywood will fall on their own swords in this regard. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas reinvented the modern blockbuster and they lament to this day how their work changed the industry in ways that they did not anticipate. The trap of success dictates that if something works once then it will work again and again, despite growing evidence to the contrary. For Burton, it remains pretty impressive that he’s managed to retain the very essence of what makes his films so recognizable and appealing over the course of 30 years, and given how successful they’ve been, even at their worst, it shouldn’t surprise us that people keep trying to make them happen. Tim Burton’s a Hollywood man, always has been, but that doesn’t make it sting less when the newer work pales in comparison to what he did in his prime.
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