Ransom Riggs’s bestselling young adult novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was snapped up by Hollywood a few months after its release in 2011. The story of fantastic visions and strange worlds found an ideal fit in Tim Burton, Hollywood’s chief purveyor of the Gothic, for the film adaptation that will be released in India on October 7. The movie stars Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, and Samuel L Jackson.
Even though Burton was famously fired by Disney for making his animated movie Frankenweenie “too scary”, the filmmaker has continued to explore bizarre worlds inspired by his love for German Expressionism. Burton’s films display a fondness for outsiders, aliens and underdogs, epitomised by his biopic of Ed Wood, routinely described as one of Hollywood’s most incompetent directors.
Burton’s instantly recognisable style has won him fans around the world, and a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 drew what was then the third-highest attendance of any exhibition in the museum’s history.
Burton has been making animated short films since his early teens, using a Super 8 camera. He made Island of Doctor Agor when he was 13. Excerpts from Stalk of the Celery Monster led to a Disney contract.
An early work that survives in its entirety is Vincent (1982), narrated by Burton’s idol, the actor Vincent Price. The six-minute film, based on a poem by Burton, is about a young boy who wants to be “just like Vincent Price”. The director would later call it “one of the most shaping experiences of my life”.
Burton remains best-known not for his mega-budget productions, including the Batman and Alice in Wonderland adaptations, but his “most personal film” — Edward Scissorhands (1990). The fantasy is the first of Burton’s many collaborations with Johnny Depp and is the story of the perfect outsider: an unfinished robot barber whose anomaly (he has scissors instead of hands) makes him a good worker but a social misfit.
The filmmaker grew up in the suburbs of Burbank in California. He was a loner and found it difficult to connect with other people. Instead, he devoted his time to drawing grotesque and strange creatures. In a 1994 appearance on MTV in a special episode titled Freaks, Nerds and Weirdos, Burton spoke about his affinity for outré characters: “When I think of a weirdo, I usually think of someone who is an individual and free and something that everybody should strive for.”
Like Wes Anderson, each Burton film has recurring elements: frequent collaborators (Depp and ex-wife Helena Bonham Carter, composer Danny Elfman), a macabre sense of humour and an obsession with the Gothic themes of shadows, death and decay. His last name has become an adjective: Burtonesque.
Numerous videos on YouTube attempt to show what a film would look like if Burton had helmed it. American illustrator Andrew Tarusov reimagined posters of classic Disney films using a similar conceit.
Burton’s recent films have not been greeted with the same critical fervour as some of his earlier work. Burtonesque has become a style unto itself, verging on parody. A video by the American comedy website College Humour perfectly encapsulates all that is wrong with the director’s films or his well-worn formula.
“No, no, we’ll take an old story that was already creepy and make it a shit load creepier... Get me Johnny Depp and my wife on the phone.”