They always start with the Danny Elfman music. It’s never quite the same, but it’s never too different, either. The overture plays while the credits roll, and the camera floats through a space and follows a drifting object. The Penguin’s bassinet, or a Wonka chocolate. A flying saucer, or a drop of blood.
Duh DUH Duh duuuuuuUUUHHH Duh DUH Duh duuuuuuUUUHHH
La La LA LA La La la la La La LA LA La La la la
Duh DUH Duh duuuuuuUUUHHH Duh DUH Duh duuuuuUUUHHH
Doodle-ee Doodle-ee doo-aaaahh – Doodle-ee Doodle-ee doo-aaaahh
There will be graveyards, with mist and moonlight and tombstones as crooked as Ed Wood’s. There may be suburbs, with pastel houses and freakish hairdos, like Frank Tashlin meets John Waters meets Dr. Seuss. It will star an outsider, preferably of the tortured variety, too quirky or damaged to fit in the mainstream but cuddly enough to become a toy. Probably Johnny Depp. Probably in a funny hat.
What do we know about Tim Burton? He is Quirky. He is Weird. He has a Personal Vision but works with Hollywood studios. He is a Genius Of The System.
He usually works with Johnny Depp. He always works with Danny Elfman. His movies are Gothic, and Dark, but playfully so. They cost and make millions. Batman created the modern blockbuster. He is an Outsider®.
He is an Artist®, with Recurring Motifs®. He has a Personal Vision®, and has applied it to Batman®, and Willy Wonka®, and the Planet of the Apes®, and Walt Disney’s® Alice® in Wonderland®. He is the first director to get a retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto’s $200 million centre for film culture, with an art exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art. “Tim Burton […] drew the third-highest attendance of any exhibition in the museum’s history. He is now in the rarefied company of Picasso… and Matisse,” says The New York Times, quoted in the publicity materials.
There is an exhibit of his early work. A realistic sketch of Lon Chaney; a not-quite realistic portrait of Vincent Price; a comic strip of the Mad Magazine variety; an anti-litter poster; a list from 1977 of his favourite horror films (Plan 9 is there); an art school sketch of a nude woman, with a little monster in the corner.
Whenever it was he found his style, it stuck. Squiggly lines and zebra stripes and polka dots and puddles of watercolour. Giant, big-breasted women not unlike his onetime paramour, Lisa Marie. Maniacal clowns and crooked trees. Sad little boys with huge heads and tiny bodies — like “Stainboy,” a moonfaced child with a cape and a big ‘S’ on his little chest. “My name is Jimmy, but my friends call me the hideous penguin boy.”
We see his first short, Vincent, on a monitor. We see his concept sketches for The Black Cauldron: ghastly creatures with the round eyes and big, crooked grins we see later, in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Disney shelved these — too creepy for kids.
Oh, it’s fun to see Batman’s cowl and Catwoman’s leather suit — those movies meant so much to me. And a Beetlejuice sandworm, and Ed Wood’s angora, and a Jack Skellington puppet, and storyboards that state, in no uncertain terms, that Large Marge sent ya.
And then the exhibition continues. The helmets from Planet of the Apes? Willy Wonka’s braces? A little doodle of the Mad Hatter? Hey, these plastic puppets — shouldn’t they be at the Nightmare Before Christmas table? Wait, no, the label says “Corpse Bride.” There’s a letter from Burton to Depp, suggesting a line for Wonka. (Not a very funny one, but they used it anyway. Maybe they trust each other too much). “After The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton’s film projects often favour pre-existing, immediately recognizable subjects.” This label is diplomatic. It’s next to the Planet of the Apes material.
Does anyone love these movies like I loved Ed Wood and Pee-wee? The program guide is hyperbolic. “The most successful film of Burton’s career and one of the most successful of all time.” “Roald Dahl’s carnivalesque whimsy and deliciously morbid sense of humour make him an almost too-perfect match for Burton.” “Planet of the Apes sees Burton revealing the blockbuster chops so often concealed behind his image of the perpetual outsider and dreamy fantasist.” The perennial Outsider® still does blockbuster business.
Would I love these movies if they were my first Burtons? Would I love these little doodles of Willy Wonka if they were at the start of the exhibition? Have I seen too many round-headed boys and zebra-striped clowns? I hear his next movie is a stop-motion remake of his own Frankenweenie. Then it’s a remake of Dark Shadows, set to star (wait for it…) Johnny Depp. Will he ever surprise me again? Maybe his fans are excited. The ones with the Jack Skellington T-shirts and the Corpse Bride backpacks, who want another trip to that misty cemetery with the crooked tombstones.
Tim Burton came to town last week. For an hour he signed merchandise from the gift shop. You can still buy them, his books and DVDs, with greeting cards just in time for the holidays. “Toxic boy’s Christmas was really quite weird / his fumes accidentally burned off Santa Claus’ beard.” Or you can get a coffee mug, or perhaps a set of Tim Burton’s Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys: stick-thin, big-eyed, huge-headed misfits rendered in plastic. Collect them all, and you too can be a Misunderstood Outsider.