Film discussion

Dumbo: The Characters of Tim Burton – The 2000s and 2010s

Baz Greenland continues his exploration of Tim Burton's adaptation of classic characters and stories ahead of the release of Dumbo...

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…

With Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming out in cinemas, we’ve been looking at the director’s filmography and the many dark and gothic films he has brought to screen. Many of those have Burton’s own interpretation of classic characters and stories. In part one, we looked at his work from the 80s and 90sBatman, Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow.

The last two decades have seen Burton bring to life more classic stories from book and film, adapted in his own vivid style. While the previous three entries discussed are considered a high standard in storytelling, that hasn’t always been the case with his own of the 2000s and 2010s. Indeed the first film following Sleepy Hollow is one that many would best leave forgotten: the first attempt at rebooting Planet of the Apes.

It’s safe to say that Burton’s attempt was not the success the more recent prequel trilogy was. This was a loose reboot of 1968 classic starring Charlton Heston, this time with Mark Wahlberg in the starring role. It does have its strengths: a cracking, guttural score by Danny Elfman that feels distinctly different to some of his other work. The animatronic facial masks, brought to life by the likes of Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter, added some emotional depth to the apes, even if there was something of an ‘uncanny valley’ feel to them. Sadly it is let down by a lazy script and lacklustre performances, even though Roth makes for a great villain in Thade. And the ending is nonsensical. What is great about Burton’s direction is his ability to mix majesty and wonder with dark and absorbing character work, but sadly Planet of the Apes misses the mark and then some.

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

One of his more controversial reimaginings is the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005. Burton certainly brings his absurdist, dark and twisted flair to this classic kid’s tale – there’s an argument that he brings out the weird and wonderful nature of Roald Dahl’s work even more so than Mel Stuart’s 1971 version starring Gene Wilder. A young Freddie Highmore is utterly enchanting as Charlie Bucket, bringing the wide-eyed wonder of titular character to life. But while weird and wonderful, there’s also a disturbing edge to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka; Burton makes his a Michael Jackson-influenced man that has none of the warmth of Wilder’s version. And given the subsequent allegations about Depp and the renewed focus on Jackson’s relationship with children, this Willy Wonka feels even more uncomfortable now than it did then.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has passion and flair that recaptures some of that dark fairy tale feel of earlier works like Edward Scissorhands. The set pieces are extravagant, regular Burton-collaborator Danny Elfman delivers another wonderful score and there is a real sense of fun, something that Burton seems to embrace more and more in his later works.

Indeed, his next three big reimaginings are all big, bold and entertaining fares. Like Sleepy Hollow, another underrated Burton film is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s also one of his darkest, Burton bringing to life visceral murders as Depp’s Sweeney Todd and Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett delight in luring unsuspecting victims to their deaths with a close shave straight into the cooking pot to make a pie. Burton really makes the most of this bloody and violent tale; we’ve seen plenty of dark moments in his filmography but gone are the gothic fairy tale overtones, to be replaced by something more adult in tone. But it still has its charm, the rumbustious musical score, brought to life by Depp and Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin, is full of passion and wicked, black humour. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is certainly is one of the most unique of Burton’s film adaptations and yet perfectly suited to his dark and imaginative stylings.

READ MORE: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – The Filmography of Guy Ritchie #1

His next two films – both adaptations of classic characters and storylines – see Burton return to his gothic fairy tale overtures. Alice in Wonderland, a sequel to the original tale in which Mia Wasikowska’s 19-year-old Alice returns to the magical land she visited a decade ago, with no memory of that adventure. Once again, Burton unites an impressive cast, from Burton-stalwarts Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the terrifying Red queen to terrific voice acting from the likes of Michael Sheen (the White Rabbit), Stephen Fry (the Cheshire Cat) and Alan Rickman (The Blue Caterpillar).

Alice in Wonderland is, in many ways, the epitome of Burton’s dark fairy tales, brought to life with wondrous gothic charm. It is larger than life, Burton making use of the trippy nature of the original tale to bring an intense, disturbing adventure and final epic battle to life as the war between the Red Queen and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen takes place. At the same time, it lacks a little of the charm of Burton’s earlier gothic fairy tales like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps because of the epic feel of the movie. It is packed with great characters but lacks a little of the emotional heart of other Burton works.

Dark Shadows followed, a film adaptation of the gothic, comedic 60s TV series of the same name. Like Alice in Wonderland, it is a story perfectly suited for Burton’s vision, but lacks charm. The cast is wonderful – Deep, Bonham Carter , Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer (all of which had worked with Burton before), alongside Johnny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley and Chloë Grace Moretz, all of which should have been sufficient to keep this tale alive. Sadly the storytelling is dull and the film flits between dark comedy to tortured romance and can’t settle on a distinct formula. Where Alice in Wonderland succeeds through Burton’s vision, Dark Shadows is one tale that lack the vampire bite of the show it is based on.

Ahead of Dumbo, we have Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs. Here, Burton really makes the most of the gothic trappings of this tale, putting regular alum Eva Green centre stage as the titular character who raises a group of children with strange and absurd powers. It is certainly dark in places, the final battle is as terrifying as it is fantastical. But it also has great heart and mystery, wrapped up in the tragic tale of time being rewound to stop a German bomber from destroying the home. It is certainly one of Burton’s strongest films of the last decade, recapturing the magic of some of his earlier work as he brings Rigg’s novel vividly to life.

Whether Dumbo has the heart of Burton’s best work will be the biggest test of this live action remake. He certainly has the flair to bring some of the story’s more absurd elements to life. Over the course of his films, Burton has adapted many great classic characters and stories from the success of Batman and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to failures like Planet of the Apes and Dark Shadows. Let’s hope Dumbo doesn’t fall foul of the latter.

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