Tim Burton―director of the underdogs, odd-balls, freaks, and supernaturals with works like Alice In Wonderland, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice―is the first auteur that comes to mind during the Christmas season for me thanks to 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, with a career-spanning retrospective going on at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), all New Yorkers will be able to understand his warped sensibilities, respect for the mutated, and appreciation for the dementia that flows through the veins of our modern societies. Tim Burton, as we all ought to know, is much more than just the man who made Batman. Obviously, while I think we all should check out the MoMA exhibit―which, by the way, features numberless drawings, sketches, character designs, storyboards, and so on from the man’s archives―I recognize that that’s impossible for most, so I’ve decided to discuss three of my Tim Burton favorites, all of which I hold are severely under-appreciated.
Burton’s first film, Vincent (You Tube >) is a mostly-stop-motion six-minute short about a severely maladjusted boy named Vincent, who, like Burton himself, models himself after Vincent Price. The whole piece is written in rhyming meter (a commonality when it comes to Burton) and delves into Vincent’s quirks (he prefers Poe over Go Jane Go) and pent up emotions (he wants to dip his aunt in wax). While the animation is jerky and a little flat at times, it is so blatantly a precursor to Burton’s later works (Nightmare, Beetlejuice, James and the Giant Peach), that one really must see it at least one.
After Vincent, Burton tried to pull a few more gigs at Disney, the studio at which his producer-girlfriend worked, including a new version of Hansel and Gretel that was promptly shelved upon completion (Hansel and Gretel combating the witch with kung-fu didn’t float executives’ boat). With Frankenweenie (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3), though, Burton finally got a live-action flick completed, screened, and distributed (albeit still limitedly). The 30-minute short stars Shelley Duvall (one of my favorite actresses and an early supporter of Burton’s work) and revolves around―you guessed it―a dog being brought back to life by a boy who misses him dearly. Think Frankenstein and his monster but with kids in suburbia. The dark humor of the film (“I don’t know what this means,” the father laments upon learning of the household’s zombie pet. “It means you don’t have to go through house-training another dog!” replies the son.) combined with the eerily romantic soundtrack and nuanced backwardness of the story’s premise and plot made it obvious to all that Burton would soon be directing such greats as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, James and the Giant Peach, and so on.
The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories (1996)
As the MoMA exhibit makes exceptionally clear, Burton is known for his films first and foremost, of course, but it is his drawings that bring those movies to life. While his pen-and-paper productions pale in comparison to his celluloid efforts, they still embody the boundlessly rich imagination and unique weirdness of Burton just as much as any feature-length flick. Oyster Boy, a collection of several of Burton’s illustrated stories, was published after the largely overlooked Ed Wood biopic, logically titled Ed Wood. Each story within is about a misfit child. There’s Oyster Boy, Match Girl, Stainboy (a character who later starred in a few animations―Episode 1 ), and others. Again, Burton expresses his unrelenting empathy with and understanding of the pains of growing up an outcast, all the time stressing the importance and value of being an individual in this big and scary, dark and confusing world.