All film directors have their hits and misses, but after Tim Burton’s last few movies, it seemed he’d seriously lost his touch. His new film Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, has me cheering Burton for the first time in over a decade.
Burton made a name for himself when he directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) became an even bigger star, and Burton demonstrated his ability to handle wacky physical comedy.
Next, Burton dazzled us with the horror-comedy Beetlejuice that not only became a classic — it made Winona Ryder a movie star. I have a distinct memory of watching the dinner scene in Beetlejuice, when they start singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and laughing harder than I had in my entire life. I remember thinking it was the silliest, most hilarious musical number I’d ever witnessed. Burton helped me see comedy in a new way. The scene felt so fresh that it was an absolute delight.
My love for Burton continued with Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp and Ryder. But here’s where I will argue that things started to go downhill.
1. Relying too much on Johnny Depp
Image: 20th Century Fox
Once Scissorhands became a hit, the Burton/Depp partnership seemed to be the magic formula for making a great movie. Sadly, the partners became complacent, even lazy, and made a bunch of really boring films.
2. Alice in Wonderland
Image: Walt Disney Pictures
What should have been a delight became droll when it was over-styled. The posters for the film were gorgeous. The movie was cold and lacked soul.
3. Dark Shadows
Image: Warner Bros.
This movie has one of the the greatest opening scenes ever on film. Lush visuals play over the song “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. Sadly, this nostalgic vampire-fest fell victim to its own bloodless bite.
Image: Walt Disney Pictures
This film was based on a short film with the same name that Burton made in the 1980s. Frankenweenie works in short form, but as a feature, there’s just not a lot to care about — particularly if you’ve seen the fantastic animated film ParaNorman, which came out the same year.
5. Choosing style over substance
Burton’s movies probably have the best sets and costumes of any in Hollywood, but without a good script, the whole thing falls flat every time. Visually interesting, many of his films failed to deliver on compelling story and really passionate characters.
6. Where’s the comedy?
Image: Warner Bros.
Burton seemed to forget how funny his early movies were and decided to go for some in-between comedy, like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The film could have been hilarious. Instead, it was just awkward.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas taking over The Haunted Mansion
I love Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and was excited to share the experience with my boyfriend last year, since he’d never been before. But instead of getting the classic ghost ride, Disneyland added the characters and art from The Nightmare Before Christmas and ruined the ride.
It was after this last straw at the supposed happiest place on Earth that I decided Tim Burton was a fraud. Just a hoax of a director who luckily got his hands on a couple good scripts but really had no talent. I had completely written him off.
Until I saw Big Eyes.
Image: The Weinstein Co.
Based on the true story of Walter and Margaret Keane, the film is about one of the biggest art frauds ever committed. It’s hilarious, it’s touching and it has awesome kitschy art.
Margaret (Amy Adams) is a single mother who paints portraits of sad children with giant, pancake-sized eyes. When she marries Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a raconteur and scammer, he convinces her to say he painted the big-eyed waifs, claiming they would sell better with a man’s name on them. Margaret agrees, and together, they find huge success.
However, Margaret instantly regrets making this Faustian deal. She lies to her daughter and loses her friends, and as more and more money rains down, Walter becomes a controlling monster. He gets drunk, stays out all night at parties and basks in the fame that rightfully should be Margaret’s.
Amy Adams really gets Margaret Keane and her struggle to stand up for herself and make good decisions. But it’s Christoph Waltz who paints a stunning picture of Walter on screen. He’s wild, he’s strategic, he’s manic and ultimately dangerous.
The tone of the humor in Big Eyes is established with a quote from the king of pop art, Andy Warhol: “I think what [Walter] Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” It’s a backhanded compliment implying that Keane’s art appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Tim Burton could have made the film as kitschy as the paintings, but instead, he took them seriously. He, along with the actors, fully embraced the garish sentimentality, never forgetting the real, complicated people behind the art. Big Eyes may be Burton’s most accessible, straightforward film yet.
Big Eyes opens Christmas Day.