By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 09, 2010 at 08:38 PM EST

Image Credit: Ed Wood: Everett Collection; Alice: DisneyBack in the mid-’90s, I was having a drink with a prominent filmmaker who had risen up in the indie movement, and we started to talk about Tim Burton, whose career at that point, with the recently released Mars Attacks! (a bomb — though seriously underrated in my book), was headed toward a tricky moment of truth. The filmmaker, who was dealing with a few struggles of his own, smiled and gave me a line about Burton that he’d obviously thought of, and used a number of times, in the past. He said: “What’s a director supposed to think when his best movie is his biggest failure and his worst movie is his biggest hit?”

That line was just glib enough to echo and resonate, even if it wasn’t entirely true. The two Burton films he was talking about were Ed Wood (1994), the great, one-of-a-kind biopic of the legendarily awful poverty-row movie director Edward D. Wood Jr. — a movie that I, too, consider to be the highlight of Burton’s career, though one whose reputation dramatically outstripped its popularity; and Batman (1989), the industry-shaking earthquake of a comic-book smash that was really the first, trend-setting example — before Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, etc. — of a director like Burton, all but defined by the flukiness of his personal vision, crossing the corporate channel to make a megabucks studio blockbuster.

Let me state right up front that I don’t agree with the aesthetically dismissive assessment of Batman. I think it’s a flawed but still marvelous movie — a very grand gem of gothic baroque kitsch, with a performance by Jack Nicholson that’s more than just one actor’s over-the-top, zany-hambone showcase. Even though he was officially playing the film’s villain, what Nicholson, as the Joker, expressed is a playfully demonic, bats-in-his-belfry joy that linked him, in spirit, to every great, bent Burton hero, from Pee-wee Herman to Beetlejuice to (one year later) Edward Scissorhands.

Nevertheless, I think that my director acquaintance was onto something. He was, in a way, almost anticipating the trouble that a filmmaker like Burton would have, in the new franchise-happy Hollywood, attemping to bring his vision to full, prankishly surreal flower in a mainstream context. It’s an issue raised by the very success of Burton’s 3-D Alice in Wonderland. This is the kind of smash hit that filmmakers dream of, but at what price? Is it an all-out Burton triumph? Or are audiences flocking to Alice in Wonderland because, apart from its obvious larger-than-life children’s-classic pedigree (and the promise of Johnny Depp cutting up), it fits into a genre of busy, babbly overly digitized postmodern ADD fantasies like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Men in Black and its sequel, and, yes, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: movies that keep throwing things at you.

For Burton, the last 15 years have had a distinct sensation of artistic identity crisis. After the financial debacle of Mars Attacks! (1996), he spent a decade struggling, with an increasingly piecemeal sense of who he was as a filmmaker, to get his vision back on track. Sleepy Hollow (1999) was a hit, but to me it was depressing in the impersonality of its competence; it was like the work of a Burton imitator — a theme-park “dark” movie with showy McBurton touches and beheadings served up with such clockwork flair that after a while, I wanted to behead the projectionist. Then came the blockbuster hit that really was Burton’s worst film: Planet of the Apes (2001), a remake no one needed, and one so lackluster that it could have been churned out by almost any flunky-for-hire. That was followed by Big Fish (2003), which was Burton shifting gears to tell a sentimental “personal” tale of family bonds, yet with only a token feeling of obsession. It wasn’t terrible, yet I didn’t really buy it. In each of these cases, what struck me is that Burton wasn’t so much making the films he wanted to make as pretending to make the films he wanted to make.

And then…the comback. At least to me. I thought that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) had that vintage Burton zing — not just the trappings but the tasty addictive flavor of weirdness. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka, with its Anna-Wintour-meets-Michael-Jackson aggressive flippancy, made for another of the director’s fascinatingly self-absorbed demon-freak misfits. Depp wasn’t just camping it up — there was an impish anti-social logic to the character. Yet five years later, it’s clear that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory genuinely divided viewers. Reading the comments on my Alice in Wonderland review, I was struck by how many Burton watchers have voiced the defining issue of his career in this way: He has to stop making adaptations. As a fan of both Charlie and (to a lesser degree) Sweeney Todd, I don’t necessarily agree, but I do know what they’re getting at. They’re saying: Tim Burton can’t really be his sublime self unless he’s utterly and totally himself.

That, of course, is the theme of Ed Wood, and why it’s Burton’s most personal work. The beauty of Ed Wood is that it recognizes, in every spooky and funny and delighted frame, what a fantastically inept, self-deluded disaster of a filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. actually was. Yet because he knew nothing about how to direct a movie in the real world, there was, in fact, nothing — no filter, no technology, no competence — to stand in between the movies that he imagined in his head, which were like a child’s fuzzy daydream scrawls, and his brave, foolish, and hilariously maladroit attempts to bring those scrawls to the screen. The grand joke of Ed Wood is that because Edward D. Wood Jr. was the worst filmmaker of all time, he was also one of the purest. It may be time for Tim Burton to remember that lesson and get back to his (bad) (pure) (inspired) self.

So what do you think of the place that Tim Burton’s career is at right now? Does he need to get back on track? And what’s your all-time favorite Burton film, and why?

Alice in Wonderland

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 109 minutes
  • Tim Burton