Tag Archives: Tim Burton

CftC: Corpse Bride

 

Corpse Bride is not a great movie. It might not even be a good movie, especially when compared with its predecessor, The Nightmare Before Christmas. A lot of it is weak. The plot is contrived, nonsensical, or extremely obvious with its direction and theme; the setting, combined with Tim Burton’s traditional “style” of animation, feels cliché; the music is less catchy and memorable; and the characters are not very compelling, but rather caricatures. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a case of the writers coming up with the title before the concept.

Despite all that, it’s a guilty pleasure of mine that I break out every year around this time.

 

In a small, Victorian town, everything is muted, prim and proper. A family of newly-wealthy fishermen are set to marry their son, Victor, into an “old money” family that is deep in debt. Victor’s bride-to-be, Victoria, seems nice enough, but has been strictly repressed by her disapproving parents, who pop in and ruin what little bonding time she and Victor do get.

Victor, who is mousy, passive, and wide-eyed, gives every indication that he doesn’t want to be married. His nerves lead to disaster at the wedding rehearsal, and he leaves in disgrace, wandering into the woods to practice his vows and gestures. Just as it seems that he is accepting his fate and ready to step it up, he recites his vow in its entirety and slips his ring onto a “tree branch,” which actually turns out to be the skeletal hand of Emily, the Corpse Bride. She rises from the dead and drags an unwilling Victor to the Underworld with her, claiming that they are now married.

 

As you might have guessed, the afterlife is an absolute contrast to the Victorian world above. It is a colorful, fun place full of rowdy skeletons and blue zombies. It seems that death puts an end to caring about propriety and appearances, because everyone lets loose and does whatever they want, with the exception of going upstairs and tormenting the living. I’m not sure why, though. Who makes up these rules of theirs? God? What’s the price for transgression, and why are they then allowed to go “upstairs” later in the film?

The Bride, whose name is actually Emily, was murdered when she tried to elope with a handsome stranger, so she vowed to wait for someone to “ask for her hand” and “wait for her true love to come set her free”.

 

Meanwhile, up in the land of the living, Victoria tries to get help and rescue Victor, only to be re-engaged to a man named Lord Barkis, who just strolled into town claiming that he was distant family, visiting for the wedding. Coincidence?

So yes, you can see the “twists” coming from a mile away. Some questions of note, however, are: How did Emily come up with that contrived, unlikely plan of hers? How does she qualify true love, seeing as any Joe Schmoe could just waltz up and wake her up? Why does she seems surprised that the guy who was fleeing in terror from her might not want to be married to her, and furthermore, why take that so personally? You’re a corpse, lady! Your personality is not what he’s afraid of!

On a sillier note, what determines how the dead look when they arrive? Do the blue zombie people decompose into skeletons over time, or did the skeleton inhabitants all have their flesh flayed off of them before they died? Emily has skeletal bits in her design, so what horrible things does that imply about how and when she died?

 

There is so much more about this setup that doesn’t make sense, however. There is an annoying third-act misunderstanding, in which Victor stupidly thinks that Victoria is willingly marrying someone else…despite him barely explaining the circumstances of his disappearance to her. And the fact that he knows what both of their parents are like; domineering and greedy.

But this leads him to agree to “officially” marry Emily, which involves committing suicide so that they can be together in death. You see, although he was dragged into the Underworld, he is still technically alive, and most wedding vows assert that death is the only thing that will break the union.

So Victor and Emily were never married in the first place, because he was alive and she was dead. Her plan could have never worked in the long run. Does that mean she would have to go back into the ground under that old oak tree, waiting for take #2?

 

And Victor…well, to put it mildly, when faced with the idea that the girl he’s known for barely a day might have moved on, he concludes that there is nothing more he wants or needs out of life. He might as well just kill himself and tie himself to another girl he has known for barely a day, who he has repeatedly avoided being straightforward and honest with.

Truly, this is a love story for the ages.

As for the side characters, it’s hard to really remember their names. There’s a maggot doing a Peter Lorre impression; that reference is too old for people my age to get, but you probably remember seeing him parodied in Bugs Bunny shorts like Hair-Raising Hare. Victor’s parents are cockney, while Victoria’s are classically snooty. Everyone is pretty much distilled down to one or two character traits, usually designated by their visual design.

 

The corpses are not terribly graphic or hard to look at. Danny Elfman plays a skeleton (not Jack!) with one remaining eyeball. He gets the best song in the movie, and then later makes a sex joke and creepily chases a woman…so there’s that.

But all of that said, I still enjoy the movie. It’s clumsy and silly with virtually nothing new or interesting to say, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining.

 

I wish Emily was a bit smarter, less love-struck, and had more screen time, because she’s the only character who really stands out from everyone else. Unlike the rest of the dead, she seems like she would have been the same in life as she is in death; naïve, but passionate and free-spirited. If Victor had spent more time with her, I could see him falling in love with her genuinely, as almost an equal. Victoria, on the other hand, is basically a female clone of Victor with slightly less personality, and I could only see him bonding with her over their mutual misery, bemoaning their sad lot in life as breed-mule pawns in their families’ games.

So no, it’s not a great or intelligent film, but it captures the spirit and charm of Halloween pretty well without bludgeoning you with so much holiday marketing. It’s a brainless affair that sadly squanders what potential it had with a short run time; contrivances; and some unexplained rules and plot points.

 

*4/10

*None of the clips, images, or audio used in this post belong to me except the title card.

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CftC: A Nightmare Before Christmas

 

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a definite fan-favorite in the Tim Burton crowd, as it is arguably what put him on the map in the first place. In this film, there is a special town devoted to each major holiday, and Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, starts to feel bored and existential after one of his celebrations. Doing the same thing year after year no longer fulfills him, and he longs for some new ideas to reinvigorate his holiday spirit.

On a fluke, he comes across the various doorways to the different holiday towns and ends up in Christmas Town. From then on, Jack tries explaining Christmas to his monstrous minions, fails, does some soul-searching, and ultimately decides that he can do Christmas way better than Santa, so he will. He understands the holiday very little in practice or principle, but he enjoys how it makes him feel, so that’s enough for him.

 

It’s basically Cultural Appropriation: The Movie, at least in the overtly negative connotation that term has taken on in recent years. Jack and his people take something of someone else’s, try to make it their own, and don’t even care when the people they affect are clearly upset and unhappy with the situation. As the monsters gather around the town fountain to watch Jack’s journey, they howl with laughter as a news reporter says Jack is “mocking and mangling this joyous holiday.” It also takes Jack forever to figure out that the obviously untrustworthy cohorts of the Boogie Man might be threatening Santa, and only really because he himself screwed things up so fantastically that the only person who could fix his mess is the guy who’s been pulling it off seamlessly for years.

You could also read The Nightmare Before Christmas as nice little jab at certain types of people; either those cotton-headed ninny-muggins who jump on the Christmas bandwagon with no idea what it’s really about, or those humbugs who demand that everyone should celebrate their way. How the denizens of Halloween Town choose to celebrate is fine in the end; after all, to each their own. But forcing it onto other people was a problem, especially given how clueless they were about it.

There is no Jesus or mention of Jesus, and the film focuses more on the giving of presents than the aspect of family togetherness that I personally think Christmas is all about, but hey, it’s a movie made for kids. Nothing is perfect.

 

The score is great and the songs are catchy; even awful ones like “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.” The puppets are creepy but unique and engaging at the same time. The settings are well put together and the use of light and color, particularly during Oogie Boogie’s song, is great. Halloween Town’s grim and grey daytime look lends well to the idea that Jack Skellington feels bored and limited by his surroundings.

 

I only really have three problems with the story. One, why does Jack trust Lock, Shock, and Barrel with such an important task when he hates their boss and clearly knows that they’re bad news? Is he optimistic, or just a well-meaning idiot?

Two: Where do Sally’s premonition powers come from? The visual of a Christmas tree going up in flames is cool and all, but it’s so brief and never gets explained or used ever again. Sally is a perfectly calm, articulate ragdoll-meets-Frankenstein’s-monster creation; couldn’t she have just “gotten a bad feeling about this” like a normal person?

 

And Three: I can buy Sally being obsessed with Jack, given how she constantly stalks him throughout the movie, but I don’t really believe Jack’s interest in her, and I don’t agree that it’s love on other side. Sure, she was the one person who argued with him, and thus could tell him “I told you so,” but otherwise, Jack barely notices Sally. And when he does, he brushes her off until he has to save her. That doesn’t strike me as love, but the end of the film certainly wants you to think so.

 

I don’t know enough about Sally as a character to conclude one way or the other, but at the beginning, her creator says “You’re not ready for so much excitement,” which leads me to believe that she’s a fairly new addition to Halloween Town. Have she and Jack even known each other that long, if this is her first Halloween?

It also smells like some Hallmark marketing exercise. “Do you like Halloween? Do you like Christmas? Well, why not have both at the same time?” It’s guaranteed to be viewed twice a year, if not more, thanks to the incorporation of two major holidays. Plus, it’ll keep Hot Topic in business for an extra decade.

Please don’t mistake me. I don’t have a serious beef with this film. From a romance and plot standpoint, I just personally like Corpse Bride a little bit better. I also think of it more as a Christmas movie than a Halloween movie, as the focus of the whole thing is taking over and preparing for Christmas.

It’s still a fun one to watch every year. Twice, if you feel so inclined. 

 

*6/10

*None of the clips, images, or video in this post belong to me.

CftC: Frankenweenie, Axed by its Own Ending

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Overall, I wouldn’t call myself a Tim Burton fan. He’s certainly creative when he wants to be, but his style is so obvious and done-to-death these days that you could scratch his name off of half of his projects and no one would have to wonder for even a minute who had creative control in them. I also have a starting bias against adaptations of previously existing films and musicals (unless a significant chunk of time has passed), and I come from the school of thought that says there should be some balance between the original creator’s intent and the adaptor’s interpretation of it.

Unfortunately, Burton struggles frequently with both.

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I like him best when he’s being somewhat original. When he feels the need to goth up an already-existing story, it often comes across as silly at best and eye-rollingly frustrating and insulting at worst.

So today, let’s look at a film of his that is simultaneously original and not at all, depending on how you look at it.

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Frankenweenie (not to be confused with his short film of the same name) is Frankenstein meets Pet Sematary for tots, but it’s all grim greyness on the surface and no real substantive horror underneath.

You might say, “Of course. It’s a kids’ movie.” And rather than rant incessantly for an hour and a half, I must ask, “Do you mean that it’s meant to be upbeat, simplistic, or that it should teach ‘morals’?”

In the former’s case….come on. It’s a black and white Tim Burton movie about a pet dying. That’s never going to be upbeat. And simplistic? Death? Yeah, right!

(And spoilers here: I’m going to skip straight to the ending. It follows the basic plot of Frankenstein, just with a dog.) If the whole point is teaching kids that death isn’t so bad, and that they should let go of their pets, then why does Sparky (Frankenweenie) come back alive at the end?

The whole point of the original book was “don’t play God.” In this version, a kid plays God, is rewarded for it (unlike in Pet Sematary), terrifies the town with his zombie pup until they bring about it second death, and then, despite an “it’s really dead for good this time” fake-out, it gets brought back yet again. Now, Victor Frankenstein and all of the other kids who want their pets brought back are validated, and they don’t ever have to come to terms with death, if they choose not to.

What sense does that make?  Any message that the film was trying to teach is instantly shot in the foot, all for the sake of some studio-mandated “happy ending”.

Compare this to Pet Sematary. If we look past the more horrific elements, we have a young child who, with the help of her father, comes to understand that the people and animals she cares about will all eventually die.

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Grieving is natural, but with a combination of time, distance, and good memories to cherish, wounds can heal (or at least become more bearable). Life will go on, and our time on this earth is all the more precious and meaningful because it will one day end.

In essence, life is growth. Life is change. Death is the cessation of both.

Now, taking into account the more horrific elements, both the film and the book provide us examples of “natural” death. The peace and dignity of death is then perverted because of the characters’ inability to let go – first, and more generally, by stagnation, and then by Louis Creed’s actions – resulting in both their literal and symbolic deaths.

Imagine that; a more “mature” movie has a more mature and healthy outlook on death.

The rest of Frankenweenie is the standard Tim Burton fare. The characters look and move like living corpses; their eyes practically bulge out of the sockets like a sad puppy in the process of being crushed.

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If that style appeals to you, that’s fine. For me personally, I liked it and it made more sense to me in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, the latter even more so due to its social commentary.

The black and white color is a nice touch, though. It certainly feels like it’s paying homage properly. It even has Christopher Lee making a cameo as the voice of Dracula in a movie playing in the background of one of the scenes.

The characters are all decent for what they are, and I must admit, I love all of the references in their names. Fans of Beetlejuice will probably recognize Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder among the voice cast, although they are not playing stepmother and stepdaughter this time.

I’ll leave you guessing about who wrote the score.

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It’s a cute film overall, if pretty derivative. Unfortunately, there is a glaring issue with the execution, and all it took to unsettle me was a few minutes at the end of the movie. Whether Burton genuinely wanted that ending or was forced to change it, it takes a solid, meaningful scene – and indeed the entire point of stories like this – and cheapens it without any indication of intentional subversion. It might quiet your kids down after initially seeing Sparky die, sure, but it could also raise more questions than it answers.

But then again, your kids probably shouldn’t be learning about death only from T.V. and movies anyway.

 

4/10

*None of the pictures (except for the bumper card at the beginning) used in this article belong to me.

 

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: Madly Overrated

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“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865

 

Adaptation is always a tricky business. In theory, a good adaptation captures the spirit and intent of the original source material, but a good adaptation and a good story are not one and the same. It is possible that one person may expand on another’s idea and come up with something better, but fundamentally different, and it’s easy for someone like me to pick and choose which “unfaithful adaptations” to get self-righteously angry at and which ones to let slide.

I admit that. What I don’t like admitting is that sometimes, it really just comes down to “I didn’t like it.” I like to give a better rationale when possible, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got.

But thankfully, I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’d like to think I have a point here or there, but these are just my frustrations and my conclusions.

I am a pretty firm believer that, generally speaking, consequences are more important than intent. A man might walk an old lady across the street out of the goodness of his heart, but if she gets hit by a car or has an accident in the process, what happened (say, he tried to push her out of harm’s way and cracked her head on the pavement instead) will matter more in court than how it happened. The near same can be said for artists and creators; their intent definitely matters, but if the entire world draws a different message from their work than they intended, that is going to be the more long-lasting influence. It’s even more muddled when no one can agree on the author’s original intent; many creators like to make things interpretable and thought-provoking, at the risk of being labeled “too high brow.”

As a creator and media appreciator myself, I accept that what is given isn’t always what’s received or appreciated, but I do find it more than a little frustrating and disheartening at times.

The 1951 adaptation Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite Disney movies; top 5 easily. It is by no means a point-for point retelling, but it meanders episodically, keeps things zany and interesting, introduces memorable characters, and adds a bit more development to Alice herself, who doesn’t realize she is dreaming in the movie.

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Though she doesn’t have a lot of personality (unlike in parts of the book), Kathryn Beaumont’s Alice makes an excellent straight-man reacting to the other characters, and her worries and frustrations that she might never get home are very relatable; literally and metaphorically being stuck in a world that makes no sense, where you have no control over anything. And, as Doug Walker pointed out in his Disneycemeber series, the characters of Wonderland are fun, but you’re never quite sure how dangerous they really are, which really adds to the atmosphere.

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From what I’ve learned, it’s not such as shame that this movie became perhaps the most iconic adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the public consciousness. The Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway, is one of my favorite Disney characters of all time, despite the fact that he is a certifiable dick who nearly gets a little girl murdered. I also like the minimalist approach to the backgrounds at times; instead of overcrowding the frame with giant mushrooms and a sugar-high’s worth of psychedelic colors, there is a lot of black and simplicity, which makes the encounters with each character more memorable.

That said, and again, in theory, an adaptation succeeds when it captures the original’s heart. If I may add to that sentiment, it should also inspire the audience to check out the source material, and not just to catalogue all of the stuff that the adaptor got wrong.

Well, folks, for every person who gets a headache fussing over the changes made in the 1951 film, Tim Burton’s adaptation will give them a splitting migraine.

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I went to the theatres to see it when it came out in 2010. I am a casual Burton fan, and I was eager to see a fresh interpretation of a classic story, but even if it’s technically “fresh” by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s standards, it relies too heavily on Burton’s overused style and formula.

Eccentric outfits? Check, although you might argue that is less of a stretch in Wonderland. I would argue back that the animals all wore things like waistcoats and the wildest thing about them was the color scheme, but whatever.

Johnny Depp and/or Helena Bonham Carter? Check.

Hot Topic fodder? Check-a-roo.

More focus on the cinematography and costumes than on actual character or story?

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Oh hell check.

But even if I could roll with all of this, Burton chose a by-the-books prophecy plot that would make even Harry Potter roll his eyes, and he tried to make this a good vs evil war movie.

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…I’m sorry. Aren’t you guys all mad here? Why in the name of Tulgey Wood would you give a crap about who rules Wonderland? There shouldn’t be a group massing behind a common cause unless it’s running for a caucus race! The only “rule” in the first book is to obey the queen, because divine right or whatever…

Instead, Tim Burton wrote “Joan of Arc meets AiW”, which doesn’t make any sense, and I shouldn’t even be complaining that things make no sense in Wonderland!

Alice herself is a boring cardboard standee with a portable carrying handle that wished upon a star to become a real boy. So okay, she’s a self-insert fantasy for the audience. Fine.

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Her “backstory” and “character development” are uninteresting, unfunny, cliché, and rushed; literally, it’s so quick and glanced over that it’s laughable. The movie is so anxious to get to Wonderland, does nothing really with it, and then rushes her “empowerment” in the real world at the end.

She’s apparently not dreaming either. Wonderland isn’t even called Wonderland, it’s called Underland, and she’s not even going there for the first time, which might be interesting if she was an interesting character. But she’s not.

The scenery would be more creative if it didn’t look so obviously fake. I repeat, Movie Producers: CG SHOULD ACCOMPANY ACTUAL PRACTICAL EFFECTS! IF IT DOESN’T, YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUST HAND-DRAW THE DAMN THINGS FOR ALL THE BELIEVABLE “REALNESS” WE SEE!

"We threw up these backgrounds in photoshop and DAMN IT WE ARE GOING TO USE THEM!
“We threw up these backgrounds in photoshop and DAMN IT WE ARE GOING TO USE THEM!

 

And again, my biggest problem is that everyone should be mad but they aren’t. The best I could call them is “quirky”, and even then, it’s in heavy quotations because it’s trademarked “Burton quirkiness”.

Listen, Burton, as much as I appreciate you trying to celebrate weirdness and “going against the grain”, all you’re doing at this point is changing the direction. Especially by making everyone the same brand and only distinguishing them at all through character design; you might as well just have a bunch of Johnny Depp Mad Hatters wandering around.

But yeah; if everyone is quirky, and moreover, the exact same degree and type of quirkiness, then they aren’t quirky anymore. They’re all normal.

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Any real-world person would start to find the denizens of Underland (words cannot describe how much I hate that name) annoying or at the very least frustrating after a while, but not Vacant-Stare, Whiter-than-the-Brady-Bunch Alice. The film tries to pass her off like she’s progressive, quirky, and interesting, but it tells instead of shows, and I just don’t buy it. She barely fills a basic storytelling slot and offers nothing else to the film.

Even the fight with the Jabberwocky is boring. Come on, Burton, you got Christopher Lee in one of your films yet again, and again, you give him nothing to do! He’s just a voice to be intimidating on a creature who, while admittedly well-designed, gets literally 5 minutes of screen time!

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Instead, we get Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter being themselves. In goofy make-up and CGI enlargements…Yipee skipee. I’ve never seen that before.

It’s not like they’re even that good or interesting. Depp can’t even pick a consistent accent, and Carter is just a fetishized Verna Felton, who should be choking on all that lead in her face powder by now.

Overall, it’s a typical gritty Hollywood remake; a style-over-substance “reimaging” more than a legit adaptation. But give it some credit; at least it’s called Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; it didn’t have the gall that Illumination Entertainment did when it titled its movie Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, despite cramming the plot of the book into roughly 5 minutes before padding out the rest of it with preachy hypocrisy and self-insert characters for the pointless celebrity voice actors.

But I digress…and now I still have to distinguish between Disney’s movie and Disney’s…other movie.

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It’s still stale, despite its popularity and success at the box office. I’m convinced that the only reason it is so popular is that it panders to every misunderstood “weird” kid out there. It doesn’t really challenge anyone, which if you really wanted to celebrate “free thinking” and the breaking from tradition, Burton, you would have done. You’re not creating a safe-space for weirdos to feel good about themselves. You’re coddling them and telling them, “Don’t think about it too hard.”

I like Burton best when he’s doing his own thing. I particularly love Corpse Bride; it’s one of my favorite movies to break out every Halloween. But practically every time he adapts someone else’s work, he either comes close to hitting the mark or so far surpasses it in the name of stamping his signature fixations all over it. The closest-to-good adaptation of his, in my opinion, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but even then, what the heck was up with the father subplot and Depp acting like Michael Jackson?!

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Where is the real effort? The real imagination? Where did it go, Burton? What did you think was the point of the original book you named your movie after? I’d really like to know.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland  tries to cram rules and formula into a world that flourishes without them, and guess what? The more you try to make something logical (in this case, trying to establish why a bunch of loonies care about who sits on a throne, eats tarts, and occasionally sentences people to murder), the more people will call you out for lack of sense.

The motivations of the characters are very inconsistent, and not in an “I’m mad” sort of way; there is a fine line between mad and stupid. Although, Burton certainly captured the murderous asshole tendencies of the Queen from the 1951 cartoon pretty well.

"I stole a circus clown's dirty laundry and shredded it before putting it on inside out and backwards. That gives me personality, right?"
“I stole a circus clown’s dirty laundry and shredded it before putting it on inside out and backwards. That gives me personality, right?”

 

A sequel is coming to theatres later this month, and it bears the name of the second book while presumably having nothing to do with the plot of said book. I’m willing to bet there will be more crazy outfits, painful CG-eyesore backgrounds, character designs that would make anime characters point and laugh, and, of course, more waxing poetic about being yourself even at the cost of being ostracized. Or, you know, thrown in an asylum.

I predict that Alice will again learn virtually nothing except that she should either move to Underland permanently or ease up on the Vicodin.

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If you have a Burton fix that needs addressing, I recommend Big Eyes. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but hey, it’s interesting and somewhat biographical (because all such movies embellish a bit). An artistic character with an established personality overcomes a very real adversity and is justly rewarded for her efforts in the end. See? Already, that’s a much better story.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is an affront to all things creative, as well as its namesake. It’s not just bad, it’s unsatisfying, which is far worse than being the former. If it makes someone out there happy, then yay; it’s not a complete waste of space at least.

But of all the live-action Disney remakes foolishly hoping to cash in and maybe overshadow the animated classics, this is by far the most shallow and loathsome. It is neither a good substitution nor a good adaptation; it just piggybacks off of Lewis Carol’s concept art for a quick and easy buck. Not even his story; his concept art.

 

2/10

*Please support the original books or the 1951 film. Or any other Alice film for that matter. None of the pictures or gifs belong to me.