Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Collaborations

By now everyone has gotten a look at the "sneaked" photo of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice in Wonderland," their seventh collaboration, and it looks like it's going to be a wild ride.

The Disney animated feature and the various musical productions made for television throughout the years were all rather light and bright. It wasn't until the 1988 live action-stop motion production by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer that the darkness in the story began to show through. Now, with this release, Burton is poised to do it one better.

Of course, Burton has never been afraid of challenging audiences with his unique vision. "Vincent," a bleak, black and white stop-motion short about a boy who thinks he's Vincent Price, got him noticed by Disney, for whom he made another short film, "Frankenweenie," about a young boy's efforts to restore life to his beloved dog after the pooch is hit by a car. It was deemed so dark by the studio that it wasn't released until years later, after Burton became a top-echelon director. "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," his feature debut, is a rainbow-colored, crowd-pleasing delight which only provides glimpses (Large Marge, anyone?) of the strangeness yet to come. I saw it theatrically twice: once at a drive-in and once at a midnight show at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Both were memorable experiences.

After "Beetlejuice" and "Batman," Burton met Depp, starting a nearly 20-year collaboration that seems to be the perfect arrangement for both of them. Burton loves to conceive the bizarre characters, and Depp loves to play them. Their first effort, "Edward Scissorhands," goes back to "Pee Wee's" brightly colored neighborhoods but stops to lift up a rock so we can see the creatures slithering underneath in the darkness. It also provides the wonderful Vincent Price with his final role as Edward's creator. I'm crazy about this film. It's a perfect blend of fantasy, social commentary and sci-fi that never makes a false move. And you get so caught up in the story that you never question how or why Edward was made—or what he's made of! Depp's admirable pantomime skills and expressive eyes really put this character across.

Then came the major studio production that was made for a comparative handful of people—"Ed Wood." Beautifully shot in black and white, with Depp in fine form as the infamous cross-dressing director, this is a truly personal work as obsessive as anything John Waters has ever done...made with Disney money! Martin Landau's superb, heartbreaking (and Academy Award-winning) performance as Bela Lugosi in his final days is a joy to watch, and I love the way the filmmakers took true episodes in Wood's life and "happied" them up, conveying the joy Wood himself felt while making his films, never realizing that their quality was somewhat lacking. And the upbeat ending, at the preview screening of "Plan 9," is the perfect conclusion to the story. Ed would've wanted it that way.

It took five years for them to work together again, and that was for 1998's "Sleepy Hollow." I have problems with this one. While the production values are gorgeous, evoking the technicolor fantasy world of classic Hammer horror films (intensified by a cameo from Dracula himself, Christopher Lee), they are put into the service of a rather limp and unsatisfying story. Depp's Ichabod Crane is an unfortunately dull nebbish, and I frequently found myself bored. Verdict: despite the surprisingly high gore quotient, the screenplay was simply too normal for a Burton film!

Seven years passed, and Depp saw his star ascend with his depiction of Captain Jack Sparrow in the first of the surprise hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. Then, in 2005, he and Burton collaborated on two projects as if to make up for lost time. I must admit I never saw "The Corpse Bride," so I can't comment on it, but Depp only provided his voice, anyhow. The other release of that year, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder favorite, is a film I can sum up in three words:

I hated it.

Everything about "Charlie" seems so overproduced: the art direction, the costuming, the acting, the music... At first, Depp's creepy child molester caricature is amusing, but the movie is so busy screaming, "Look how weird I am!" in every stinking frame, it just becomes tiring. Danny Elfman's songs are awful, and the bizarrely-monikered actor Deep Roy ("Neverending Story") is obnoxiousness multiplied as the Oompa-Loompas. While "Sleepy Hollow" is beautiful but boring, "Charlie" is just fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.

When I heard that Burton and Depp were taking on Stephen Sondheim's musical version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," I was afraid. Their last two collaborations were not successes in my opinion, and I was fearful of what might happen to this wonderful work. I never got the chance to see Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (or George Hearn) perform it on stage, but I loved the PBS "Great Performances" teleproduction of it. And about a year before the film's release, I saw the revival of the musical on Broadway with Patti Lupone. In this radical restaging, the actors also play instruments, doing double duty as the orchestra! It worked amazingly well.

So, I thought: What are you going to do, Mr. Burton? Are you going to provide this classic with the production it deserves or are you going to take it to oompa-loompaville? Despite my trepidation, I eagerly rushed to the theater upon its release. As the blood trickled through the sewer system and the main theme played during the opening credits, I could feel a tingle starting at the back of my neck. It was a tingle that never stopped during the entire film.

Burton made wonderful choices. Knowing that he couldn't "camp up" the grand guignol story, he instead played up the themes of disease, revenge and blood—lots of blood. No one gets out uncorrupted—and in many instances, alive. Depp's grim-visaged Todd manages to be both humorous and tragic at the same time, a tribute to his skill. Bonham-Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a revelation, too, as a world-weary piemaker who doesn't care what ingredients go into her goods and who sees Todd as her last hope for happiness in a dark and disillusioned London. And given the fact that Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are not professional singers, their songs integrate beautifully in this context. I understand Sondheim himself approved of the film, and well he should.

So now here comes "Alice," scheduled for release next year. My faith renewed by the success of "Sweeney Todd," I'm looking forward to it. The cast is chock-full of great English stalwarts (and Americans Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover) and, if Depp's makeup and costuming are any indication, it will be a feast for the eyes as well. I hope it's dark, and I hope it has humor, too.

But please, Mr. oompa-loompas.

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