One of the first VHS tapes that I wore out was The Nightmare Before Christmas. In between the Coming Attractions and the movie itself, the video tape featured a segment, set to bombastic Danny Elfman* music, about the “genius mind” of Tim Burton. I didn’t really know who Tim Burton was, but that segment always filled me with chills. I’d never known a genius before, let alone a wild-haired, mad genius who used his skills to create art intended for me. I loved him right away.
By the time I got to middle school, I was in full-tilt hero worship mode for Tim Burton. I carried around Mark Salisbury’s Burton on Burton like a Bible. For me, Tim Burton just got it, you know? Doesn’t every middle schooler have their first artist who just “gets it?” Tim Burton was mine, based almost solely on what I’d learned from Burton on Burton and from Nightmare. I probably didn’t see a Tim Burton film in theatres until Big Fish in 2003. Instead I wept alone in my basement over the Edward Scissorhands DVD that I borrowed (stole) from my middle school boyfriend.
So, as you’ll likely recall, 2005 happened. Something weird happened in 2005. Tim Burton made a movie that most people didn’t like. Like, at all. Not even a little bit. In fact, Tim Burton, for arguably the first and (then) only time since 2001’s Planet of the Apes, made a movie that people hated. I couldn’t let my idol be wrong, so I became that annoying kid who would try to talk you into why Charlie & the Chocolate Factory was a good movie.
“Um, in terms of the script, it’s actually much more faithful to Roald Dahl’s book than the Gene Wilder version…”
Oh my God, Dani, shut up.
My religion for a while became what I call “Tim Burton apologism.” I found nice things to say about Charlie, Corpse Bride, and Sweeney Todd. I was a faithful acolyte. I just distracted myself with the Vincent short on the Nightmare DVD. Then Alice in Wonderland premiered, and I finally ran out of nice things to say. So, I stopped saying anything. I didn’t see another new Tim Burton film until 2014’s Big Eyes.
I can’t help it, though. I should probably know better, but I’m kind of psyched for the live-action remake of Dumbo. Check out the trailer before we proceed any further.
Right? Kind of intriguing! Right? Look at his big, sad eyes! Maybe? Another movie that I wore out as little kid was the animated Dumbo. Elephants were my first favorite thing. I carried a little stuffed Dumbo everywhere I went. “Baby Mine” still has the capacity to ruin my day. I want next year’s Dumbo to be good. I love the source material and the director. The trailer made me kind of excited. Eva Green, Michael Keaton, retro circus stuff? COOL.
I can still remember the time in my life when the phrase “from the imagination of Tim Burton” thrilled me with its sense of endless potential and promise. But I also remember how disappointed I was in Alice in Wonderland, which still feels like it should have been a Burton slam dunk. So, I don’t know.
The best Tim Burton movies capture the triumphant essence of the self-assured weirdo. Look at Pee-Wee and Beetlejuice and even Batman– it’s not that they don’t struggle, and it’s not that they don’t experience pain, but they are who they are, I judge, without apology. I felt like a misfit weirdo during middle school, and I felt like I was supposed to hide. I belonged in the dark corners of drama club and morning announcements, where no one had to deal with me. Tim Burton’s work helped me realize that the world is crammed full of weirdos, and that we just have to find one another. Then we can hang out in the corners together, and shield each other from the things in the sunshine that might want to do us wrong.
Tim Burton’s best work was never about being “dark.” Tim Burton’s best work was about exploring your rough edges without indulging in cynicism. In Burton on Burton, here’s the mad genius himself on the inspiration for Edward Scissorhands: “It was the feeling that your image and how people perceive you are at odds with what is inside you, which is a fairly common feeling. I think a lot of people feel that way to some degree, because it’s frustrating and sad to feel a certain way but for it not to come through. So the idea had to do with image and perception.”
I choose not to believe that Tim Burton’s lost his spark. I hope that Tim Burton still has magic to do and wonders to show us, and that maybe things have just been lost in translation lately. But I also concede that we’re willing to make a lot of excuses for our middle school heroes. The artists who show us in our most awkward days that there’s beauty and magic in our weirdness are important. Tim Burton has a lifetime pass for me, but I’d still like to see him renew his membership, you know?
I’m pulling for you, Tim. See you next year, you weirdo.
* The true hero of most Tim Burton productions. Fight me.