With the upcoming release of Frankenweenie on October 5th, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the films of its director, Tim Burton. Rather than do a film-by-film technical analysis, I feel inclined to share what these films mean to me and why Tim Burton will always remain one of my favorite filmmakers. The list of his directorial efforts spans 15 feature films (not including the upcoming Frankenweenie). They are: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice In Wonderland, and Dark Shadows.
For me, one of the biggest appeals of a Tim Burton film is that his protagonists are often outsiders; some who might be considered oddballs and some who don’t quite fit into society (as defined in the film). This is something I’ve always identified with, and why a Tim Burton film feels personal for me (even if it’s a more commercial property).
We start with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I had seen this film in bits and pieces on cable when I was a kid, but I never got to see it completely from beginning to end until almost ten years. I first attended a screening at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center in January 2003. I would get to see it on the big screen again later that year at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of their (at that time) complete Tim Burton retrospective. I would get to see it for a third time at a midnight showing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Fourth of July weekend two years ago (which to me was a special 25th anniversary screening). The one thing I kept thinking during each viewing was how very funny the film was after all these years.
It’s still hard to believe that, despite all the gags, this was inspired by an Italian neo-realist film (1948’s Bicycle Thieves). The story is simple: Pee-Wee Herman’s bike is stolen, and he goes to great lengths to get it back. His journey across the country is compelling; as he encounters various characters and bizarre situations, he grows up in a way without losing the charm of what makes him Pee-Wee. Credit must be given to Paul Reubens, who also co-wrote the script, for bringing such personality to the character. A lesser actor might’ve grown dull with the character after a while, but Reubens manages to keep Pee-Wee dull-free (and continues to do so to this day). And then, of course, I have to mention that Danny Elfman score, which marked the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration with Tim Burton and the first of many Elfman scores I have come to cherish over the years.
For me, when I think of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, I think of the things about myself that I don’t want to lose because I feel that if I lose them, I lose myself. For some, they might not want to grow up; for others, they might have a particular skill that they don’t want to lose (whether it’s for a hobby or a job they enjoy). I think the fear of a loss of self is more common than people would admit to. When watching Pee-Wee during the film, I see the childlike innocence he exudes. Even as his character grows a little along his journey, I never did want him to lose that childlike innocence. I think it’s something we all want to hang on to as we get older, or at least just a little bit (which is okay – for an example of a case that is definitely not okay, I’ll refer everyone to Michael Jackson).
Next up is 1988’s Beetlejuice. This was another film I had seen in bits and pieces on cable when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until nine years ago that I finally saw it from beginning to end and also on the big screen (courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Tim Burton retrospective). I’ve always loved this character: A bio-exorcist who tries to take advantage of a newly-deceased couple. Michael Keaton (in what would be a breakthrough year for him with this film and Clean and Sober) brought the right amount of crazy and warmth to the character. Beetlejuice is a guy you’d like to hang out with for a while, but not too long, especially if you have kids and elderly folks around. I actually felt bad for him, though. I’m pretty sure he really wanted someone to be with, although I don’t think Lydia was really going to be that person. I could understand him being trapped in the miniature cemetery would make him lonely and drive him a little batty (more than he already was to begin with).
For me, when I think of Beetlejuice, I think of my mortality. Besides being entertained by a good film, I’m reminded of what long-term isolation can do to a person. I’m also reminded that the afterlife in the movie is a whole lot worse than what will actually happen for us (unless you actually believe in Heaven and Hell). One thing I take away from this film is that you have to make the best with what life (or afterlife) throws at you, and that’s something I’m always doing. Things may not pan out like you wanted, but you have to endure nevertheless. That’s perhaps a surprising life-affirming message to take away from a movie about death. Then again, I’ve seen stranger things happen (like a second George W. Bush term in the White House – where was Beetlejuice when we really needed him?).
COMING SOON: The Films of Tim Burton Part Two