There was something so terrifyingly perfect in the idea of Tim Burton reimagining Disney’s 1941 circus tearjerker Dumbo. If anyone could rediscover, perhaps even amplify the grotesque tragedy lurking at the heart of this outsider sideshow, it should be Burton.
He seems at home with the material.
Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is basically Dumbo: an innocent misfit, safe only with the one who birthed him, tragically loses that protector and must face a cold, ugly and abusive world that accepts him only because of what it can gain from the very oddities it mocks.
Dumbo is maybe the most emotionally battering film Walt Disney ever unleashed on unsuspecting families. But Burton seems thrown off course by a hero seeking release over acceptance, and instead of that macabre sense of wonder that infuses Burton’s best efforts, he seems content to bite the white-gloved hand that is feeding him.
Dumbo, the wing-eared baby elephant himself, does come to impressive CGI life – all grey wrinkles, long lashes and big, beautifully expressive eyes.
The film’s other squatty little character – Danny DeVito – is also a joy to watch. As circus owner Max Medici, DeVito charms every moment onscreen, and seeing him face to face again with Michael Keaton (as the shady, badly-wigged amusement park magnate V.A. Vandevere) is a nostalgic hoot.
The balance of the cast—Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green—fluctuates from passable to painful while staying consistently detached, and any true emotional connection just cannot take root, despite the inherent head start.
Because let’s be honest, many parents will be carrying an emotional connection into the theater with them, perfectly ready to surrender to the ugly cry moment they know is coming.
And it does…but it doesn’t, the scene strangely cut off at the knees to serve a bloated narrative that adds nothing but running time. True movie magic, heartbreaking or otherwise, is nowhere to be found.
The only interesting thing Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, several Transformers installments) do, via the Vandevere character and his theme park, is deride the film’s parent company. It’s nearly impossible to view “Dreamland” as anything but a Disneyland stand-in, and equally difficult to decipher the purpose.
Are they calling out rampant consumerism, unsavory Disney memories such as Song of the South or none of the above? Whatever the answer, it only adds to the confusion found in the center ring of this misguided update.
The biggest problem facing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is that the film is not nearly peculiar enough.
Tim Burton takes on director duties for Ransom Riggs’s popular young adult novel about how special it is to be special. Jake (Asa Butterfield) lost his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp) mysteriously and visits the orphanage of his childhood looking for closure.
What he finds involves loops in the time space continuum, Burton-esque hotties, creepy twins dressed as scarecrows, and eyeball eating.
It’s impossible to watch this film without comparing it to both the X-Men and Harry Potter series, which means Peregrine has to be Goth enough to set itself apart. You would think, if anybody can Goth up a story, that body is Tim Burton.
Working again with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell, Burton gives the film a lovely look that creates a nostalgic quality. He’s also made a couple of casting choices that elevate the effort.
Eva Green excels as the titular headmistress, giving the character just enough falcon-like characteristics to make her fascinating.
Samuel L. Jackson – working with some pretty weak dialog – still brims with more swagger than necessary to keep his villainous Baaron interesting.
Butterfield – so tender and wonderful in Scorsese’s 2011 Hugo – falls flat here. So, so flat. His awkward outsider, so weary with the ordinariness of his suburban Florida adolescence, is perhaps too convincingly flattened out by life.
There is a fun Ray Harryhausen-inspired fight sequence in the third act, but by that time you realize that the film has offered so little in the way of interesting visuals or action of any sort that it’s almost jarring.
Not as jarring as all that eyeball eating, though.
On first blush, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children felt like the perfect match of content and director. And Burton could use material that makes him work for it (Big Eyes), rather than just “Tim Buttoning” it (Alice in Wonderland). Maybe the most peculiar thing about the film is that he does neither.
One billion dollars. That’s global money, keep in mind, but still, who’d have thought Tim Burton’s utterly banal and forgettable 2010 acid trip Alice in Wonderland had made so very much money? Too much – and not just because the film had no genuine merit, but because that kind of sum necessitates a sequel, however wildly and wholly unnecessary – even unwanted – that kind of muchness must be.
And so, back to Underland we go, accompanying an adult(ish) Alice who returns from a stint as sea captain to find Victorian England just as restrictive as it had been when she was a child escaping into her imagination. And so, to her imagination she returns.
Director James Bobin (The Muppets) has the unenviable task of following Burton into the rabbit hole – not unenviable because he may suffer by comparison, but because his options are somewhat limited based on the film’s predecessor. Expect garishly overdone visuals that offset weekly drawn characters.
Familial tensions are at the heart of the tale, penned by Linda Woolverton and based on some of Lewis Carroll’s most dreamlike and incongruous storytelling. Too bad Woolverton and Disney insisted on hemming Carroll’s wild imagination inside such a tediously structured framework.
The Hatter is depressed to the point of death and Alice has to go back in time to save him. Basically. But you can’t change the past – a lesson she’d allegedly learned in her first fantastic voyage, but I guess it didn’t stick. So, let’s learn it again, with the help of Time himself, as played by Sacha Baron Cohen with a Schwarzenegger-esque accent.
Aside from that new face, the same forgettably wacky group returns to the future/past. The talented Mia Wasikowska struggles to find life inside the bland Alice while Helena Bonham Carter pointlessly chews scenery.
An underused Anne Hathaway brightens certain scenes, and Johnny Depp – reliable as ever inside a fright wig and exaggerated make up – does bring a wistful humanity to the otherworldly events.
But imagination and tiresome capitalism butt heads from the opening sequence, and without the foundation of compelling characters or the requirement of engaging storytelling, Through the Looking Glass proves to be a pointless, though colorful, bore.
We’re on a music kick. Last week we looked at the best rock star horror movies, so it seemed only natural to move on to the best horror musicals this week. At our house, this particular sub-genre might serves as a kind of bridge between the two of us, since Hope generally hates musicals while George appreciates them. And though it is true that Hope can find some love in her heart for a musical with a side of bloodletting, it turns out that George only likes actually good musicals. Which is to say, they disagree a bit on this list.
Dude, 1974 must have been nuts. Brian De Palma’s first and only musical is a Phantom of the Opera/Faust/The Picture of Dorian Gray mash up (with some Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and more than a little Rocky Horror thrown in for good measure). That’s a heady mix, and while the film was nominated for an Oscar for its music, it isn’t exactly the classic you might expect.
A campy skewering of the soulless music industry, Phantom sees tiny Seventies staple Paul Williams as the Satan-esque Swan, a music executive with a contract for you to sign. Poor Winslow (William Finley) is just as wide-eyed about his music as all those would-be starlets are about their chances for fame and fortune in this evil world of pop super stardom.
Like many horror musicals, the film works best as a comedy, but Finley’s garish visage once he makes his transformation from idealistic musician to mutilated Phantom is pretty horrifically effective. The film as a whole is a hot Seventies mess, but that’s kind of the joy of it, really.
4. House (Hausu) (1977)
If Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris were to marry Pee-wee’s Playhouse, this would be their offspring.
A spoof of sorts, Hausu tells the story of six uniform-clad high school girls named Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, and Mac. The nomenclature alone should clue you in on the film’s lunacy. The giggling sextet spend spring break at an aunt’s spooky house – or, in fact, a cheaply made set of an aunt’s spooky house. Not a single thing that follows makes sense, nor is it really meant to.
Expect puppets, random musical sequences, remarkably bad backdrops, slapstick humor, and an amazingly sunny disposition given the sheer volume of human dismemberment. The trippy nonsense wears a bit thin eventually. Luckily director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film clocks in at under 90 minutes, so the screen goes dark before the novelty wears off.
3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Here’s a bizarre idea for a musical: The barber upstairs kills his clients and the baker downstairs uses the bodies in her meat pies. Odd for a Broadway musical, yes, but for a Tim Burton film? That sounds a little more natural.
Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a full-on musical – Burton’s first – and every inch a stage play reproduction. For many films, this would be a criticism, but Burton’s knack for dark artificiality serves the project beautifully, and he achieves the perfect Dickensian Goth tone. His production is very stagy and theatrical, but never veers from his distinct, ghoulish visual flair.
As in most of Burton’s best efforts, Sweeney Todd stars Johnny Depp in the title role. Depp is unmistakably fantastic – consumed, morose, twisted with vengeance – and he’s in fine voice, to boot.
The supporting cast boasts a liltingly nefarious performance by Alan Rickman. As the judge whose sent an innocent Todd off in shackles, raped his wife, then took custody of his daughter, whom he leeringly admires, Rickman is wonderful as always. His duet with Depp on “Pretty Women” is the film’s real musical gem.
With Burton’s help, Depp found another dark, bizarre anti-hero to showcase his considerable talent. With Depp’s help, Burton gorgeously, grotesquely realized another macabre fantasy.
2. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Takashi Miike is an extremely prolific director. He makes a lot of musical films, a lot of kids’ movies, a lot of horror movies, and then this – a mashup of all of those things. Like Sound of Music with a tremendous body count.
The Katakuris just want to run a rustic mountain inn. They’re not murderers. They’re lovely – well, they’re losers, but they’re not bad people. Buying this piece of property did nothing to correct their luck, either because, my God, their guests do die.
You might call this a dark comedy if it weren’t so very brightly lit. It’s absurd, farcical, gruesome but sweet. There’s a lot of singing, some animation, a volcano, a bit of mystery, more singing, one death by sumo smothering, and love. It sounds weird, truly, but when it comes to weird, Miike is just getting started.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Surely you expected no other atop this list because, honestly, nothing else comes close. The most iconic of all horror musicals, The Rocky Horror Picture Show boasts the best soundtrack, the best performances, the best mad scientist, and quite possibly the most fun there is to be had (legally) at the movies.
I’m afraid you’ve touched on a rather tender subject there.
Tim Curry is utter perfection as Frank-N-Furter (A Scientist). The entire balance of the cast is also amazing, but no matter how many times you watch Curry step out of that elevator, abuse his servants, or seduce his houseguests, it never gets old.
Creator Richard O’Brien’s raucous, once controversial film about a sweet transvestite, a slut, an asshole, and a couple of domestics who sing, time warp, throw rice, animate monsters, swap partners, and finally put on a show is still as much fun as it ever was.
Once a subversive take on the classic musicals and sci-fi films of the 30s and 40s, Rocky Horror is now a high-camp icon of its own.
Do people buy art because it touches them, or simply because they are “in the right place at the right time?”
The often combative relationship between art and commerce, and between two people who personified it, lies at the heart of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s eccentric take on the story of Walter and Margaret Keane.
Walter rose to fame in the 50s and 60s as the artist behind those massively popular portraits of “big-eyed waifs” staring out from behind a frame. He became the Thomas Kincade of his age, savaged by critics but embraced by the masses… and it was all a sham. Margaret was actually the talent, while Walter took the credit and honed his considerable skills in self-promotion. She finally ‘fessed up and claimed her works in 1970, igniting a legal tussle between the former spouses that lasted years.
One look at Keane’s big-eyed characters will tell you Burton is a fan, and the film often benefits from his whimsical vision. Like a mix of Edward Scissorhands and A NIightmare Before Christmas, Burton gives Big Eyes a setting that looks historically familiar, yet slightly other-worldly.
Amy Adams delivers another captivating performance as Mrs. Keane. We feel the conflicting emotions present as Margaret agrees to stay out of the limelight, with Adams creating her own finely crafted portrait of a woman’s quiet struggle against the submissiveness expected of her gender. Margaret is an underdog, and Adams makes it easy to root for her.
It’s a stark contrast to Christoph Waltz’s over-the-top depiction of Mr. Keane. Waltz is a gifted two-time Oscar winner, but Burton and the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Man on the Moon/The People vs. Larry Flynt) don’t give him room to let Walter become anything more than a one-dimensional con artist.
Big Eyes is an entertaining period drama held back by Burton’s broad stroke. The very nature of the Keane’s story begs deeper questions, but they’re ultimately abandoned in favor of those crowd – pleasing happy trees.