There are few that will ever probe so deeply, see so clearly, touch so profoundly the souls of a people than the genius that is Tim Burton! Where to begin? The Nightmare Before Christmas? Perhaps, there are many films that could be deemed his tour de force; however, that may be the film that introduced me to “Tim Burton the filmmaker”. I remember it well. Not the plot, specifically, nor the characters (although who could ever forget Jack and Sally?) but the wonderful darkness‐both beautiful and hauntingly sad, that welcomed me into its warm embrace. Suddenly grasping how a simple children’s story could be innocent yet passionate, chilling but harmless, forbidding and comforting: that was the decadent brilliance that drew me in and has never let me go!
Studying at the California Institute of the Arts led to his working on projects for Disney who awarded him a fellowship, circa 1980. This fortuitous apprenticeship allowed Burton to work as an animator on films such as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. Interestingly enough, it could be assumed that this very conventional, mainstream, conservative animation style helped push him toward that murky corner of his vibrant mind that allowed us the privilege of such masterpieces as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd. Ironically, Disney then fired him in 1984 after making a short film called Frankenweenie (the story of a boy trying to revive his dog which was hit by a car), deeming it too dark for general audiences and a waste of company funds. Ah, but were it not for that darkness; never would he have shown so bright!
It would be easy to say Tim was always creative. He enjoyed fine art as a boy and making stop motion films. Be it painting, drawing or just enjoying movies, he continually surrounded himself with creative outlets. It’s no surprise that Edgar Allen Poe was a favorite author and that horror and science fiction were at the top of his genres of choice. He greatly respected Vincent Price, an immense influence in his life with whom he had the honor of working with on several occasions.
No one stands out in Burton’s life like his colleague, his friend, the godfather of his children: Johnny Depp. Cast as Edward Scissorhands (1990) the two continued to build a life-long friendship that would span what could be seen as Tim’s greatest works to date including the wonderful and marvelous twists on childhood favorites such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland! Obviously, Helena Bonham Carter‐a creative soul in her own right‐also played, and indeed still plays, a crucial part in shaping his films. Helena has a boundless gift of portraying strong characters no matter who she depicts (she may be best recognized as Bellatrix Lestrange from the Harry Potter series but I’ll never forget her as Marla Singer in Fight Club! A movie so gorgeously dark and twisted it could have sprung straight out of a Tim Burton dream). Bonham Carter worked wonders as the sweet, lithe voice of Emily in Corpse Bride, the fascinating Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd and the infamous Red Queen in Alice In Wonderland as well as numerous other great Burton films.
Before I started reading about his childhood I knew little of Tim’s personal history; truly, I believe I have but scratched the surface. Regardless, I feel we share some basic traits that I never knew existed and those similarities endear me to a man I already respected. He was an introvert and focused on his art even at a young age, as did I. Spending many days alone, yet content to be so, I enjoyed drawing, painting, sculpting and writing poetry. I frequently attempted to challenge societies perception of what was considered normal, explore unfamiliar territories and confront uncomfortable topics such as death and anguish; perhaps to push back at communal boundaries I felt surrounded me, possibly due to mere teen angst or conceivably to laugh and find humor in that which frightened me most: mortality itself. I don’t claim to know why Burton focuses on such topics, only that I respect how he creates virtue from agony, pleasure from revulsion and beauty from violence. With the incontrovertible success of his ability to twist such stories as Alice In Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into elegant, sinister works of art, it’s not hard to believe that I am far from alone in my appreciation of that wonderful capacity.
Whichever film may have first broken through the light to reveal the shadow of such glory, whatever magnificent nightmares gave birth to such beautiful gore‐whether it began in a California backyard of the 1970’s or a cynical Disney studio a decade and a half later‐of this I am certain: Tim Burton is the personification of creativity and he has only just begun!
© Daniel E. Barndt ~2012