Tomorrow "Dark Shadows" will hit theaters, the latest gothic entertainment from director Tim Burton and his muse Johnny Depp. And, as per our review and many others, it's sadly another disappointment; another wonderful-looking, empty picture that seems to have been derived from the filmmaker and his star taking on the kind of film that's expected of them, rather than something to push or challenge them.
But once upon a time, Burton was one of the most exciting filmmakers around, a former Disney animator who moved into the live-action world with an enduring family comedy classic, and went on for a nearly-decade-long run of critically acclaimed box-office hits that established him as having one of the most distinctive, unusual voices in Hollywood. With "Dark Shadows" bumming us out this weekend, we've decided to provide an antidote by examining five of the most essential Burton directorial efforts in the filmmaker's career. Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below. And let's all keep our fingers crossed that this October's "Frankenweenie" turns out to be the return to form that it looks like it could be.
“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985)
With all the Best Movies lists circulating the web this week (though they should more accurate be read as "My Favorites" rather than Best), it’s a bit of a head scratcher that Tim Burton’s feature-length debut (and pièce de résistance), “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” remained absent. A modern day riff on “The Odyssey” or “On the Road,” this fruitful Burton/Pee-wee collaboration is one of the big screen’s most classic and epic journeys, centering on an innocent and eccentric young boy who embarks on the biggest adventure of his life across the U.S. in search of the beloved bicycle that was stolen from him in broad daylight. After a feverish and desperate examination of the facts, chance and fate send Pee-wee across the country to Texas. Along the long and winding road our hero meets and befriends escaped criminals, dangerous Hell’s Angels, a kind Francophile waitress, and eventually ends up on the Warner Bros. studios film lot where he finds his precious best friend bicycle. Deeply funny, absurdist, endlessly quotable and yet, somehow strangely poetic and beautiful, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” arguably Burton’s masterpiece, is perhaps the perfect movie: It's 90 minutes on the nose, its three act structure is impeccable, Danny Elfman’s score is his best, and Burton stays out of the star’s way. Its meta-conclusion, as Pee-wee shirks off the James Bond-style action film based on his life starring James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild, because hell, he already lived it, is just brilliant. It also raises the great Shakespearean existentialist question that lingers far after the movie is over: I know you are, but what am I? Criterion Collection, it’s your move.
After "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," Burton had already been hired by Warner Bros. to develop "Batman," but the studio was reluctant to greenlight the picture until the young director had further proven himself. Fortunately, a script for a dark supernatural comedy called "Beetlejuice" came along from writer Michael McDowell, who'd penned "The Jar," an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" that Burton directed in 1986. After a rewrite by Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren to lighten the tone a little, the film turned out to be a monster hit, and saw the go-ahead given for "Batman." And it's no surprise. A canny subversion of haunted house cliches, which sees recently deceased couple Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) trying to evict a garish family from their marital home, aided by their goth-y daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) and the sinister 'bio-exorcist' of the title (Michael Keaton), the film was fiercely original and visually extraordinary, truly marking Burton as a talent to watch. So much of what would become his hallmarks are pioneered, from the intricate production design (by Bo Welch) to the like-nothing-else stop-motion special effects, but it's also funnier and looser than much of the director's work, the spirit of Pee-wee still running high. One forgets, given the merchandising that followed, that the title character (a comic tour-de-force from Keaton) is featured relatively little, but it's a mark of how good the rest of the cast, from the game duo of Baldwin and Davis to future Burton favorites like Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O'Hara and Ryder, that you're never biding time waiting for his next reappearance. Talk of a sequel, to be penned by "Dark Shadows" writer Seth Grahame-Smith, has resurfaced in recent months, but one hopes that all involved only go ahead if they can match the original.