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Happy Birthday Tim Burton!

Watching Burton’s films, you feel like Jack Skellington stepping through a portal into a different realm.

By Gemma Blundell-Doyle, First Year, English

Visual artist turned auteur, Tim Burton, is the man behind many of my ghoulish childhood favourites. From stop motion masterpieces The Nightmare before Christmas (1993) and Corpse Bride (2005) to gothic romance Edward Scissorhands (1990) his work is distinctively macabre.

He has been celebrated for revitalising the superhero genre with Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) which has underpinned the Marvel and DC franchises since.

His films have also established and sustained the careers of Hollywood legends including Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp. Depp made his film debut in Edward Scissorhands and going on to collaborate on a further seven films over a 26-year period including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

Courtesy of IMDb

But, before he was allowed to create his markedly unique movies, his style was dismissed as being too avant-garde to attract mainstream audiences.

Upon graduation from a prestigious animation course at the California Institution of Arts in 1980, Burton started work as an animation apprentice at Walt Disney Studios, where he found limited success. It seems his macabre sensibilities did not fit the outwardly cheery tales that were being marketed to the nation’s children. In fact, an early version of Burton’s animated Frankenweenie (2012) was a black and white live action film that was deemed too traumatising to be released.

A piece surviving from his first stint at the studio is Vincent (1982), a 6-minute stop motion picture, credited as the second horror film created by Walt Disney Studios and a homage to actor Vincent Price (1911-1993) who starred in the classic horror films Burton watched as a child.

Despite failing to reach a commercial audience, it caught the eye of Paul Reubens, who was looking for a director for his latest project. This turned out to be the surrealist tour-de-farce Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). At just 25, Burton, without any previous experience directing feature-films, landed the job and watched as the film earned more than $40 million at the box office.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) | Courtesy of IMDb / Warner Bros

The catalogue of horrors that entranced the boyish Burton includes Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1958) and these influences, along with the German Expressionism style he encountered in titles including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) are evident throughout his impressive body of work.

Monsters and the worlds they inhabit are often the focus of Burton’s films. But instead of deploying his creations for simple scare tactics, it is often the psychological battles these characters go through that leave an imprint on the viewer. His protagonists, physically and emotionally disordered, must battle their discordance with society to stave off the loneliness darkening their reality.

Burton has said Edward Scissorhands is one of his most autobiographical works: it’s the story of a young man, isolated in a suburban American town and struggling to communicate with those around him. It reflects the emotions Burton experienced during his childhood. The banalities of life – school, teachers, parents – were more fear inducing that the fantastically absurd beasts roaming behind the silver screen.

Burton executes the ideas that spring from his mind so authentically that the continuum between the character and the world they inhabit fit seamlessly and provide no challenge when suspending your disbelief. Watching Burton’s films, you feel like Jack Skellington stepping through a portal into a different realm.

Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Tim Burton, and Danny Elfman at an event for Edward Scissorhands (1990) | Courtesy of IMDb / Barry King / WireImage

His world building ability is unmatched. Viewers delight at the richly stylised backdrops of his films. The Nightmare Before Christmas birthed the iconic image of Jack atop Spiral Hill. Instead of fear, the eerie calm of the image transcends the screen and connects the audience to a character depressed by the nature of his existence.

The heart-breaking loneliness felt by these characters and presumably Burton in his early life is compounded by the recurring motif of a supernatural dog. The companionship given by animals is often one of the earliest human experiences of unconditional love. The emotional anguish that accompanies their death is a potent experience of grief.

For Burton, the loss of his childhood pet Pepe inspired the plot of Frankenweenie, in which young boy attempts to resurrect his dead dog Sparky. Burton consistently includes canine characters that deliver comfort to their masters, most notably, the phantom dog Zero that guides Jack in The Nightmare before Christmas.

Burton’s introversion has led to the experiences that fuel his creativity. It has also meant the bonds fostered with his collaborators are prized and span the breadth of his career.

Danny Elfman has created the scores for sixteen Burton directed films including Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland (2011) and Dumbo (2019). His music is a crucial component of the distinctively dark tone that characterises Burton’s work.

Alice in Wonderland (2010) | Courtesy of Film Frames / Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Burton’s most commercially successful film is Alice in Wonderland which generated over $1.025 billion in ticket sales and became the fifth highest-grossing film of all time during its theatrical run. It saw him rely totally on visual CGI effects rather than the physical effects upon which Burton first honed his craft. Although it was criticised for lacking a powerful story-line, Burton, with his eye for surrealism, ensured the wacky world of Wonderland was portrayed successfully.

Burton has created a distinct space in cinema and his influence can be seen in titles such as Monster House (2006), Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012). For children with a taste for the uncanny, he has ensured their curiosity regarding the other-worldly will continue to be satiated.

Featured: Film Frames / Disney Enterprises, Inc., IMDb / Barry King / WireImage, Warner Bros

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