There’s a scene in my favorite Christmas movie, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer", in which our heroes Rudolph and Hermey are denied acceptance to the Island of Misfit Toys due to the fact that even though they may be misfits, they are not misfit toys, to which the gold and silver obsessed Yukon Cornelius scoffs, “Well how do you like that? Even among misfits, you’re misfits!” This line has always stood out to me. It’s humorous, but still raises an interesting idea of a character that really doesn’t belong anywhere. In a lot of ways, I think that this is the kind of character that Tim Burton has been his entire life.
Throughout my life as a Burton Nerd, I’ve developed a reputation among some of my cinephile friends as a rabid fanboy that will fight anyone to the bitter death who happens to disagree with me. While I’ve allowed myself to play into that persona in a lot of ways, the truth is that I really do feel strongly about this particular artist’s body of work, more so than any other filmmaker. I think a lot of this violent defense stems from a frustration I have with many people who argue against me and the fact that their arguments aren’t based on the actual works of Burton but rather a stereotype of his work that has seemed to replace his actual aesthetic in the eyes of detractors.
I find my eyes glazing over and my brain tuning out as soon as someone tries to convince me that it’s a bad thing that Johnny Depp has appeared in Burton films so frequently or that Danny Elfman scores almost every Burton picture. Detractors aren’t the only ones that have it wrong though. In my opinion, if you love "The Nightmare Before Christmas" but you have no idea what the film "Ed Wood" is, then you are not a Tim Burton fan. While this used to make me unspeakably angry to the point of shaking, I’ve started to become a lot more calm and understanding of this fact.
Tim Burton is an artist who makes art for one person and one person only, Tim Burton. While this has made him unbelievably popular at times, it has also made him the target of much ire and ridicule. With this, Tim Burton is misunderstood by almost everyone, from his adoring fans to the scoffing cynics. Tim Burton is the real world version of characters like Edward Scissorhands or Jack Skellington, strangers to modern society who try to do something great. At times they are cheered and celebrated, and sometimes they are booed and driven out of town simply for being themselves.
Tim Burton is the filmmaker responsible for sparking my own desire to be a filmmaker. As a child, I’d always loved movies, more than almost anything else that I loved, but Burton’s filmography wasn’t introduced to me until I was in 7th grade. It all started with an episode of Seinfeld. It’s the episode where two barbers are fighting over the love and attention of Jerry. In the end, they confront each other, only to forget their differences after they both become enraptured by a television screening of "Edward Scissorhands." This was right before I became obsessed with film history, so at the time, I thought part of the joke was that it was a fake movie, but after my father informed me that "Edward Scissorhands" was in fact a real movie, I knew I had to see it for myself. I still remember renting the VHS and popping it in, having absolutely no idea what to expect. I was expecting something normal, but what I found changed the way I looked at movies forever. I was enraptured. I never thought that films could be so personal and so fantastical at the same time.
Here was a movie that was a strange tale of a misunderstood monster whose visuals completely embraced the bizarre and the surreal aspects of this story. No other film I had ever seen before this had done such a thing. The films of Tim Burton relate more to the abstract than anything else, and yet not the kind of abstract that most adult fare is used to. All Burton films maintain a sense of childlike wonder and mischief which seems to fade for a lot of other adults, but for Burton has been a mainstay. Yet this is no reason to dismiss. This is a reason to embrace a truly one-of-a-kind and unique vision. A filmmaker and artist shows us the world through their own eyes, and Burton has been doing that non-stop his whole life with fascinatingly varied results. Even in films that don’t quite work as a whole, like 2001’s "Planet of the Apes" remake, there are moments of pure Burtony joy and wonder. The moment where General Thade is trapped behind glass and places his hand to the glass where Ari’s is and they stare into each other's’ eyes is a shared moment of heartfelt humanity between two outcast non-human creatures, which is undeniably Burtonesque.
After that, I ate up the rest of Burton’s filmography. I read everything I could and watched each film so many times I’ve reached the point where I know most of these films by heart today. When movies like "Corpse Bride" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" came out in theaters I paid for a ticket at least four times each. I wasn’t aware of the backlash until I was finally a doe-eyed film school freshman. Almost immediately, I became used receiving a similar response every time I told someone Tim Burton was my favorite filmmaker. An eye roll and a shrug and something dismissive like “Oh, his old stuff is alright.”
And then something awful happened. "Alice In Wonderland" came out. I’d spent a good portion of the year leading up to the release of the film hyping myself up and driving everyone around me crazy by not shutting up about it. Then I saw it. Worse, I saw it with a large group of other film school students. The derision among my classmates was immediate and for a few months afterwards, I was in denial about how bad it was, wanting so desperately to prove all of them wrong. But the truth of the matter was that it was a bad movie. A very bad movie. A movie that not even Burton is proud of.
The most disparaging part about "Alice In Wonderland" though, isn’t that it was a CGI nightmare mess that betrays all of his most personal aesthetics for cheap gimmicks, but that it is Burton’s most financially successful film to date (unless you adjust for inflation. Then it’s "Batman," which is encouraging). The masses flocked to it and ate it up even though it was his least personal and weakest film. This didn’t seem to matter to them, as long as they got what they thought was a Tim Burton movie, even though it is a Disney disaster wearing the skin of a Tim Burton movie, but that’s an argument for another essay. This was fuel to the fire of all those that already hated Burton enough. In a lot of ways, this seemed like a nail in the coffin to most film fans, giving them a reason to dismiss anything else that has followed, even though films like "Frankenweenie" and "Big Eyes" are quite good (I’ll also defend the hell out of the first two acts of "Dark Shadows").
The release of "Alice in Wonderland" brought to light a feeling that I’d always had yet never addressed. When I was in high school, I rolled my eyes at the people who wore Jack Skellington t-shirts, but couldn’t tell me what Burton’s first short film was named. I recall a moment in high school where I had written a paper on filmmaking and had included a photograph of Tim Burton on the set of "Sleepy Hollow" and a classmate asked me if it was a picture of Steven Spielberg. I always thought that Burton was a filmmaker who was only truly appreciated by cinephiles, yet that didn’t seem to be the case either after hearing numerous dismissals throughout film school. Apparently he didn’t fit in among the cinematic elite either.
Throughout his career, Burton has seemed uncomfortable at almost every public event or interview he’s ever participated in. He seems not only disenchanted by rejection, but even more horrified by success. The kid who used to hide in the closets of Disney Animation studios was suddenly thrown into the limelight and the results have been mixed ever since. In some ways, Tim Burton was Scissorhands, and Disney was Peg, coaxing him down from the mountain, wanting him to join the rest of society. We’re the townspeople, who at first embraced him, then turned on him for not being exactly what we wanted him to be. But some of us are Kim, who can look upon him and truly see the artist underneath all the hubbub. Too dramatic of a metaphor? Perhaps, but it works for me.
Being a fan of anything runs the risk of dangerous hyperbole on both sides. We cinephiles expect our filmmakers to be infallible and when they fail we seem to take it as a personal affront, as if the filmmaker has directly spit in our eyes. Likewise, when they have their moments of unbelievable highs we act as if there is nowhere else to go from there. There is no more room for growth. We forget that these filmmakers are people, who love movies and stories and art just as much as we do, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. But what really makes something a failure or a success? "Alice In Wonderland" may have disappointed me, but what if it inspired a young artist who’s going to take the world by storm years from now? Many dismiss "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" as lesser Burton, but to me, it’s always been one of his most fully realized and beautiful films.
In the end though, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else says. In a 2012 New York Times interview, Tim Burton has given possibly the most appropriate response to his career. When asked about what he wants his legacy to be, Burton responded with “The thing that I care about most - that you did something that really had an impact on them. People come up on the street, and they have a “Nightmare” tattoo, or little girls saying they loved “Sweeney Todd,” and you’re like “how were you able to see it?” Or you see people, especially around Halloween, dressed up in costume, as the Corpse Bride or the Mad Hatter, or Sally. It’s not critics, It’s not box office. Things that you know are connecting with real people.”*
That’s what matters. When all the smoke clears, Burton’s an artist whose work has touched and reached out to true misfits, weirdos, and loners, who have in turn, created their own art. That means more than any unanimous praise could ever mean.
*Itzkoff, Dave. “Tim Burton: At Home In His Own Head”. Nytimes.com. The New York Times. September 19, 2012. Web. September 17, 2016