But here's the thing: I loved Tim Burton. He was my absolute favorite director until around 2001. The worlds he created held my attention in a deeper way than other filmmaker's. The oddball and macabre design, along with the melancholy atmosphere, were unlike anything I had seen in movies. It was as fantastical in imagination as any blockbuster, and it felt more ethereal and personal than the "Hollywood" spectacle of a Spielberg or Zemeckis film. He introduced me to ideas of retro kitsch, spooky fringe and proudly holding onto timeless obsessions of your youth.
Burton is one of those early influences in my life that made me become a passionate movie lover. I can catch "Beetlejuice" or "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" at any moment on TV and immediately get sucked back into them. Batman, Jack Skellington, Martians that explode at the sound of Slim Whitman -- I was (and still am) a head-over-heels fanboy for those cinematic adventures. But now I look at those movies and hold them in high regard in spite of Tim Burton.
Tim Burton is not the filmmaker he used to be. The haunting emotional resonance of an early project like "Edward Scissorhands" does not exist in something like 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," or the recently released "Dark Shadows." (And if you think it does, please feel free to explain.) Since 2001, he's been more content playing the Hollywood game: trying to sell the public on pre-packaged, risk-free commercial entertainment that looks pretty, has distinct colors, and usually features Johnny Depp exhibiting some kind of quirk for ninety-minutes. These projects are the cinematic equivalent of cotton candy: They're not meant to be "deep" or "profound," nor are they trying to use the artform of movie-making to uncover any new truths about the human condition. Their sole purpose is to get you to pay twelve dollars to laugh and be distracted from your life. It's as interchangeable and disposable as "Battleship" or those Geico commercials with the excited pig.
How did Tim Burton become such a money-chasing hack? How could someone who was so unique become so manufactured? There are only two potential answers. One: he's much more cynical than his public persona lets on. He's a businessman, who is perfectly content selling his brand to the young (and young at heart) outcasts of society with a few token themes of "loneliness," and then wrapping it all in a line of merchandise ready for the new season at Hot Topic. He doesn't care if it's an old drawing, a trading card set, a '70s soap opera or a comic book; if it's "goth," then he wants to sell it to you. If that's the case, then he doesn't deserve the adulation that his fanbase has given him. The only other option is this: he was never that good to begin with.
When he was a young and hungry director, Burton wasn't given free rein to do whatever he wanted. He had to compromise with producers, writers, actors and scores of other people involved with a movie. Making a film is a collaborative process; no one person is responsible for a film's perfection, even on the greatest movies of all time. But now that he's "Tim Burton" -- and delivered billions on box-office profits -- he's not going to be reined in. He's surrounded by producers who sign blank checks for him to do his "Tim Burton" thing, then he casts his best friend and his girlfriend in his movie. He's so ensconced in his little bubble that he'll never hear "that's a bad idea" or be pushed to find new ways to entertain. Looking at the last decade of his work, it's clear that if he's this one-note, then all the past glory he's received needs to be given to other people.
So let's stop pretending and call it like it is: Tim Burton is a really good art designer. And that's it. He's great at coming up with visual graphics that translate to impressive costumes, makeup, scenery and special effects. That's an impressive skill set, but it doesn't make him a good director. "Directing" a film comes with a lot of storytelling responsibilities that go beyond making everything look cool. Burton's been handed a rare opportunity to tell stories to a global audience, and all he does is make toy commercials. Why do I have to pretend like he's anything better than that?
For further proof, let's take a look back at each of Burton's projects
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" This character (and movie) belongs to Paul Reubens (not to mention co-writers Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol). While Burton helped translate the Pee-wee persona to the big screen, this was a passion project for the film's star.
"Beetlejuice" Michael McDowell was the one who brought the script to Burton; later Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren developed the story further. The movie also sports an impressive cast, from Alec Baldwin to Winona Ryder to Jeffrey Jones. And the titular character might be the perfect demonstration of Michael Keaton's manic comedic timing.
"Batman" Again, Burton had nothing to do with the story -- the script is again credited to Sam Hamm and Skaaren (plus several uncredited rewrites). And once more Keaton was spotlighted in a leading role, this time a risky departure from his usual character type. Plus, it starred Jack freakin' Nicholson, who had so much presence and control over his character, he could basically dictate the shooting schedule around Lakers games.
"Edward Scissorhands" Edward started as a drawing from Burton's teenage years, and the task of creating an actual story was handed off to Caroline Thompson, a novelist who proved to be very adept at translating fairy tales to the big screen (her later credits include "Black Beauty," "The Secret Garden" and a TV version of "Snow White.") A young Johnny Depp signed on to take his first big acting risk, and he was surrounded by Oscar-winning talent like Dianne West and Alan Arkin, plus the legendary Vincent Price.
"Batman Returns" Burton was not interested in directing the film, but only signed on to get "Scissorhands" greenlit. Again, he had nothing to do with the script, and the extravagant production was filled with effects by wizards like Stan Winston.
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" This is a contentious one in some fan circles because Burton didn't even direct and he regularly receives credit like he does. "Nightmare" started as a three-page poem from the '80s; the movie script was developed by Caroline Thompson again and the musical portions came from long-time creative partner Danny Elfman. The whole affair was directed under the eye of Henry Selick, one of the most successful stop-motion animators in history.
"Ed Wood" The genesis of this idea came from screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have gone on to pen biopics "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Man on the Moon." The project was originally going to be directed by "Heathers" director Michael Lehmann, but he had to drop out at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts. Burton took over and filmed the first draft, as is. The film was buoyed by performances from Depp, Bill Murray and an Oscar-winning turn from Martin Landau.
"Mars Attacks!" The goal of this movie was to pay tribute to B-movies from decades past, and it accomplished it: "Mars" was the first commercial and critical disappointment of his career. But if it's not your aim to make a good movie, is it considered a failure?
"Sleepy Hollow" The film started as a low-budget slasher from the writer of "Seven" and Kevin Yagher, a special effects artist looking to make his directorial debut. After Yagher lost the job due to creative differences, Burton signed on, having just removed himself from the infamous "Superman" debacle at Warner Bros.
"Planet of the Apes" The poorly-reviewed and forgotten remake spent years in development hell before Burton signed on, amid criticism that he was a "hired gun" for 20th Century Fox.
"Big Fish" Screenwriter John August adapted the unpublished novel "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions" and spent years working with Steven Spielberg, who was planning on directing. Burton signed on after Spielberg had to drop out. And don't forget August's words were delivered by critically acclaimed actors like Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" This second attempt at adapting Roald Dahl's book came from Dahl himself, who spent years trying to get a film version that was closer to his vision than the 1971 family classic. After many directors toyed with the idea of working on "Wonka," Burton signed on with August and Depp, adding their own new backstory to the candy-maker and receiving criticism for Depp's eccentric Michael Jackson-like performance.
"The Corpse Bride" Burton shared co-directing credits with Mike Johnson, a stop-motion animator, and screenwriting credits again went to August and Caroline Thompson.
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Burton replaced Sam Mendes, who was working directly with Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. The film adaptation was scripted by the multi-time Oscar-nominated John Logan, while Sondheim remained as a creative consultant overseeing the production.
"Alice in Wonderland" Burton signed a deal with Disney to make two 3D films; with Disney writer Linda Woolverton on board, Burton tackled "Alice" because he never felt an "emotional connection" to Lewis Carroll's story. His re-worked tale, that involved effects-laden battle scenes, received some of the worst reviews of his career.
"Dark Shadows" For his latest effort, Burton hired Seth Grahame-Smith to pen the adaptation of a cult 70s soap opera. Prior to his first screenplay work, Grahame-Smith was famous for writing a "Spider-Man" handbook, "The Big Book of Porn" and the literary mash-ups "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," which combine one thing that was already successful with another thing that was already successful.