Film discussion

Dumbo: The Characters of Tim Burton – The 1980’s and 1990’s

In the lead up to Dumbo’s release, it’s time to explore director Tim Burton and the wide and varied interpretations of his classic characters and stories, starting with the late 80’s and early 90’s…

Many great directors have their own distinctive style, making a film as unmistakably theirs. Whether it’s their use of recurring actors, composers or a visual flair that marks the film as their own, there are directors who’s film you can probably identify by the opening scene alone.

Love him or hate him, director Tim Burton is one of those directors. The man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks will be bringing audiences the latest live action Disney reimagining in March with Dumbo. Burton might seem an odd choice of director at first compared to say Jon Favreau of The Jungle Book and upcoming live action The Lion King. But then the director of Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and two Twilight movies Bill Condon gave audiences the surprisingly delightful (if a little indistinct) Beauty and the Beast.

Burton also feels like an inspired choice when you look into the original animated Dumbo from 1941. It’s one of the more trippy animated Disney offerings, the hallucination of pink elephants offering some disturbing imagery – something that could have Burton’s stamp all over it. And it’s a delightfully heartfelt movie too; if Burton can create some of the passion and endearing qualities of say Big Fish or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, then he might be onto a winner.

Dumbo isn’t the only classic character and story that Burton has reimagined in his own distinct style. Over the course of four decades, he has interpreted his everything from Batman to Planet of The Apes, some obviously more successful than others. But when he has gotten it right, there have been some truly joyous and dark fairy-tale-like adaptations for the big screen.

READ MORE: The Dark Knight – Throwback 10

If you were to ask someone what their favourite Tim Burton movie is, there is a good chance they would pick something from these two decades. After directing a series of shorts in the 70s and early 80s, Burton really made his mark in the latter half of the decade, following his first big-screen directorial debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure with Beetlejuice, a deliciously dark and twisted tale of a deceased couple who summon the titular character to rid their home on its new inhabitants. It’s a macabre fairy-tale, the sort that Burton has brought to life in many of his films, with Michael Keaton playing the dark and hilarious Beetlejuice with madness and intensity.

In Keaton, Burton found the man to bring his version of Batman to life. The caped crusader had been a larger than life character on screen, thanks to the wonderfully endearing and camp 60’s movie and TV series with Adam West in the role. Burton took Batman down a much darker path; he is a character surviving in a city rocked by crime, suffering years after the death of his parents and using his own psychopathy to deal with the villains of Gotham City dressed as a giant bat. While the film appears to draw on the darker side of the comics, Burton in fact had little knowledge of the origins on page, instead drawing on the darkest and most troubling aspects of Batman / Bruce Wayne’s psyche. The line between hero and monster is blurred and Batman is already a terrifying mythical monster himself when the film opens. It’s in part to the manic nature of Keaton’s performance as the Dark Knight that he feels as dangerous as he does heroic.

While Christopher Nolan’s (arguably greater) interpretation of the villainous Joker was borne out of the escalation of a man in a bat costume fighting crime, Burton’s Joker is much more personally connected to Batman. Unlike the comic’s and (Nolan-trilogy) Joe Chill, it is a younger Jack Napier that kills Bruce Wayne’s parents and he in turn is ‘killed’ and resurrected by Batman, only become the monster we see thanks to Batman’s actions in the factory. There are certainly some questionable decisions made my Burton in reshaping the Joker for this film but they fit his vision of a monster begetting a monster and both Keaton and Jack Nicholson bring huge presence to their roles that they elevate the movie to greatness.

At the same time, there is also a sense that the first movie plays things a little safe. As hugely entertaining as Batman is, it feels very ‘comic-booky’, never taking itself too seriously and at the same time, a little restrained by its gothic settings. The sequel Batman Returns is arguably Burton’s interpretation of the Dark Knight unleashed. Burton himself stated that he felt bored by the first instalment, but the sequel embraces the dark and twisted nature of Batman, gothic city and its many OTT villains. The sequel is a Batman’s nightmare before Christmas, facing off against a literal monster living in the sewers (Danny Devito’s vile and enthralling Penguin), a Trump-esque human villain for both Batman and Bruce Wayne (Christopher Walken’s superb max Shreck) and a zombie-sexualised lover / villain in Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer dazzling in the role.

READ MORE: Batman Returns – Is It a Christmas Film?

In Batman Returns, Burton’s Gotham is a dystopian metropolis, dark and brooding, its inhabitants living in something feels like it stepped out of the 40s, has been mixed with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and churned up in a city of corporate 90s greed. You never see the sun even in those rare scenes not set at night and the streets are haunted by killer clowns, terrified citizens and masked figures. The characters themselves are Burton embracing the weird and bizarre nature of these personalities. Catwoman is literally a supernatural creature, killed and resurrected by cats and taking on feline traits in her own demeanour. Pfeiffer – pardon the pun – kills it in the role, playing up the madness of a woman abused, murdered and brought back into the chaos of Gotham City. DeVito’s Penguin has a similar macabre trait; while not overtly supernatural, he is a monster, literally thrown into the sewers and raised by penguins in one of the franchise’s most extreme takes.

Gothic, macabre and twisted is something that can be levied against much of Burton’s filmography and Batman Returns is the ultimate fusion of his dark and crazy style translated through classic and iconic characters. His follow up Ed Wood is certainly a weird and wonderful retelling of the ultimate B movie director and Mars Attacks is a ridiculously fun and demented homage to 50’s sci-fi movies but it is in his next big interpretation where his dark and gothic stylings emerge again, translating the already dark and gothic tale of Ichabod Crane and the legend of the Headless Horseman, in Sleepy Hollow.

Again, Burton draws his repertoire of talent, with a less OTT Johnny Depp reuniting with the director, while Christopher Walken embraces the terror and villainy in the Headless Horseman. Washington Irving’s classic horror story is a perfect for Burton’s own interpretation and emerges as a thoroughly enjoyable film as a result. If anything, it is so spot on – the fusion of director and story – that it remains a less memorable entry in Burton’s directorial repertoire. It’s not an early classic, nor is a misstep like the later Planet of the Apes. But it is certainly lavish, fun, scary and daring in equal measure.

We’ll continue our look back at Tim Burton’s interpretation of classic characters and stories with a look back at his work of the last two decades…

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