Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tim who escaped the banality of his ordinary suburban existence in Burbank, California by conjuring up dark and fantastic visions in his own mind, visions that he brought to life with pen and paper or stop-motion short films. As a grown-up, Tim briefly brought his significant artistic talent to the Walt Disney company, but the bright and happy Mouse House proved an ill-match, so he struck out on his own, parlaying the success of his well-received short Frankenweenie into a feature directing assignment, 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The surprise success of that oddball comedy led to more gigs: among them, Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands, all successful and all distinct examples of a specific artistic vision. More importantly, his films connected with a very particular audience of outsiders and misfits -- viewers who felt marginalized by both the film industry and society at large. Here, at last, was a mainstream filmmaker who empathized with their plight and celebrated their oddity. He made it okay to be different, whether you were an overgrown man-child, a ghost, a traumatized man who dresses up in a rubber batsuit or a warm-hearted, pale-faced guy with scissors for hands.
But it's perhaps inevitable that once you become part of the system, the system changes you. As Tim continued to make movies, his choices often became less bold, his ideas less invigorating and his general approach more predictable. And while he still clearly sided with the freaks and geeks, he had less and less to say to them. That's how we ended up with films like Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland and now Dark Shadows, movies that come dressed up for a grand costume ball only to discover that the party was two days ago. Dark Shadows, a big-screen translation of the cult '60s supernatural soap opera, isn't the worst movie Tim Burton has ever made -- it's hard to top his disastrous reboot of Planet of the Apes -- but it's the latest example of how creatively adrift he's become. (It says something that his strongest live-action movie of late remains 2007's Sweeney Todd, an adaptation of a great musical that you'd have to work exceptionally hard to screw up.) Based on Dark Shadows, which opened over the weekend to tepid reviews and equally tepid box office, here are some signs that indicate the Tim we knew and loved may be gone for good.
He's Given Up Trying to Direct Johnny Depp
In the early years of their working relationship, Burton and his muse Johnny Depp were operating on the same wavelength and brought out the best in each other. In Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and even, to a certain extent, Sleepy Hollow, the duo developed a unique, relatable character and made him the compelling center of an otherwise off-kilter world. But ever since Depp went and became a big-deal, big-time movie star thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, their partnership feels like less of a collaboration and more of a case where the actor shows up on set with a character already in his head and Burton just calls "Action." In Dark Shadows, Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the son of a prominent 18th century Maine fishing family, who pisses off the wrong lover -- stunning witch Angelique (Eva Green) -- and winds up losing his parents, then his fiancée and finally his own mortality, transformed into a vampire by his spurned conquest's curse. Buried deep underground for some 200 years, Barnabas is dug up in 1972 and discovers that his grand family manor -- not to mention the lives of his descendants -- is in tatters. As with many of recent star turns, Depp seems as though he's acting in between air quotes; he's not playing Barnabas Collins so much as he's playing Johnny Depp playing Barnabas Collins. Using his by-now familiar stilted English accent and repeatedly flexing his vampire-elongated fingers as if they were... well, scissors, the performance is a collection of his familiar tics in place of a character. If Burton tried to discourage any of this, it doesn't come through in the movie. For the sake of both of them, it might be time to call this relationship off, at least until they remember why they were such a good match in the first place.
He's Lost Focus
In its first fifteen minutes, Dark Shadows appears as though it's going to be the story of a mysterious young woman calling herself Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Winona Ryder) who turns up at the Collins estate to apply for the job of governess to the youngest Collins, David (Gulliver McGrath). There, she meets the rest of the kooky, ooky clan, including steely-eyed blonde matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her angry teen daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) and David's shifty dad, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). Vicky also has a close encounter with another resident... a ghostly apparition that looks a lot like her. The stage is set for a supernatural mystery/coming-of-age story, but all that goes out the window once Barnabas appears and hijacks the proceedings without bringing an equally strong narrative hook along with him. Characters that seem as though they were going to matter abruptly vanish to the background, including Vicky herself. Instead of an effective ensemble piece where all of the players are utilized in pursuit of a uniting narrative and thematic focus , Dark Shadows becomes The Barnabas Show with special guest stars.
He's Forgotten How to Tell a Joke
Burton's sense of humor has always tended towards the broad. Remember the famous "Day-O" sequence from Beetlejuice or the penis-envious Martians attacking the sturdily erect Washington Monument in Mars Attacks!? Sure, you could call these gags sophomoric or silly... but they're still pretty damn funny. His jokes haven't necessarily gotten more sophisticated over the years but, when he remembers to include them, they have gotten a lot lamer. Much of the humor in Dark Shadows is derived from the '70s trappings, whether it's Barnabas's fascination with modern technology to such "boy, the '70s were goofy" moments as when Alice Cooper serenades the partygoers at a big Collins-organized shindig. Sure, Edward Scissorhands takes a number of potshots at '50s suburbia, but that's balanced by a vivid sense of place that's missing here. You believed in the world of Edward Scissorhands and that made the humor all the more effective; Dark Shadows feels as artificial as the sets look.
The Feeling is Gone
There's one scene in Dark Shadows that actually carries some genuine emotional impact and hints at what might have drawn Burton to this film in the first place. Not to give the whole thing away, but the specific moment involves one character presenting another with their still-beating heart... a grand gesture of love that, had it been reciprocated, may have prevented some of the darker misfortunes that befall the Collins family. Where some of Burton's past films feature a more whimsical depiction of matters of the... um, heart, Dark Shadows has a crueler outlook on love and Burton seems to want to use the inherent longevity of his central supernatural characters to examine how that kind of acid-tinged relationship plays out over the centuries. It's a promising idea in concept, but in execution, the emotion simply isn't there. Even when Burton's movies struggled with logic, they always had feeling and now that sadly seems to be absent too. We hate to say this, but we finally may be ready to throw in the towel on Tim Burton. Prove us wrong, Tim -- we'd love to fall back in love with you all over again.
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