Tim Burton: what went wrong?

Tim Burton films used to be a must-see. And now they're not. With Sweeney Todd on the horizon, Simon wonders what happened...

Tim Burton: always interesting, but no longer great?

Recent news of the promising-looking Sweeney Todd has offered something of an olive branch to people like me, disaffected Burton-ites who are wondering just what happened to one of the most imaginative, creative modern day film directors. Back in the 80s and early 90s, a Burton film was a must see. Rarely did they tell a story astonishingly well, yet they were in their own way so stylistic and gripping that personally, I could barely resist them. It was his second full film that got me on the bandwagon. Beetlejuice remains a cracking, idea-packed carnival of fun, giving Michael Keaton the role of a lifetime in the process. It was, in many ways, a genius film. Then, of course, came his Batman movies, with Edward Scissorhands sandwiched in-between. Until Batman Begins, I adored Burton’s Dark Knight films. They suffered from aforementioned story problems, but the twisted characters were a delight, and he showed a deft touch for a bit of comedy in the midst of it too. But moreover it was a real achievement to reinvent what Batman meant to a generation of people used to seeing the 60s TV show in re-runs. Scissorhands I didn’t like at all, simply because I didn’t buy the glucose-dripping tale at the heart of it. But it was no less interesting to watch. As he hit the mid-90s, though, Burton seemed to peak. 1994’s Ed Wood is a superb film, Burton’s best, a loving biopic of the world’s worst film director. It should have won him an Oscar nomination, and urgently needs seeing by a lot more people. It’s flat-out brilliant. Just before, he’s also been involved in another smashing film: initiating, conceiving and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas. And then the wheels started to come off. Appreciating his next film, Mars Attacks!, was eventually released – although not made – in the slipstream of Independence Day, it was still a little disappointing, not really delivering the belly laughs in the quantity that the concept offered. Sleepy Hollow was better. A little bit pantomime, chock-full of style and a rollicking good night out, it wasn’t vintage Burton, but was the closest he’s come to a really good film in some time. He followed it with easily his worst film, the disastrous remake of Planet Of The Apes. That put him off big studios and killed a potential franchise in one go. It was quite, quite terrible. Big Fish was a good response. This one left me a little cold, although I’m aware that many regard it very highly. Clearly a far more personal film, it’s on my list of movies to give a second spin to. What’s put me off though is the double bill of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, aka 2005’s most disappointing features. A Burton take on the Roald Dahl classic should have been a match made in heaven – not least because Burton produced the very good adaptation of James And The Giant Peach in the 90s – but it was one of the most empty, dull experiences I had in a cinema all year. And then for Corpse Bride to display very little of what made Nightmare Before Christmas great was a double disappointment. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is slap-bang on my radar for many reasons. But none more so than I’m hoping, as I suspect many others are, that it’s the film that reignites Burton’s reputation as a must-see filmmaker.