Throughout the history of film, there have been several successful actor/director collaborations - Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese…even Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin. From John Ford and his western icon muse, John Wayne to Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon, the results usually remind viewers of the special bond between cast and crew. Nowhere is this more true than in the work of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. While he has also used his wife Helena Bonham Carter in his last seven films, the eight this filmmakers has made with the former teen idol stand as an important linking verb to today’s Hollywood. After the ultra-high concept days of the ‘80s, Burton and Depp have managed to make material otherwise deemed weird or eclectic into a brazen box office bonanza. They haven’t always succeeded wholly, but their attempts consistently borderline art.
So how does one rank such a divergent collection? How do you place a noble adaptation of a time honored Broadway masterwork alongside a silly slice of fairy tale reinterpretation. Oddly enough, quality overwhelms many of the more mundane reasons. While he is often criticized for his storytelling skills and lack of a successful third act, Burton can bring out the best in his partners. As seen in the determination below, the eight efforts (with, one assumes, more to come) guided by the duo defy easy explanation or examination. Like the men who made them, they are complicated, easily misunderstood, and often dismissed without a desire to dig deeper. When viewed through a less arch aesthetic, we discover that, overall, Burton and Depp have triumphed. Not always in the ways viewers might want, but definitely within the designs that keep their teamwork tantalizing. Let’s begin with their most recent revision:
As a collaboration between the two divergent artists, this should have been better. As a matter of fact, it plays perfectly into both men’s mindset (the tortured outsider, the unusual communal collective he or she falls into, wild-eyed eccentricities and real world intrusion…). So why is it the last entry on the list? Simple, it carries too much baggage around with it to be a true Burton/Depp success. Instead, the spirit of Dan Curtis and the lasting legacy of his bizarro world soap opera thwarts everything the pair attempts. The results are confusing and often cheerless.
Burton goes big, and brings Depp along to indulge his desire to play peculiar. In this case, Lewis Carrol’s lesson in dream logic is retrofitted into a grrrl power proclamation within polite Victorian society. Once in the supposed magic kingdom, we get oppression, malaise, and a real amount of terror. One has to give the director credit for a vision unlike any attempted before in the Alice mythos. This doesn’t mean Burton always succeeds. On the other hand, Depp is delightful as the Hatter with a battered backstory. Even in a fancy fright wig, he delivers depth.
For decades, people complained about the original Willy Wonka adaptation. No, not because of Gene Wilder’s dead-on interpretation of the character, but how the rest of the film avoids the jaded joys in Roald Dahl’s book. So when it was announced that Burton would take on the title, and would bring Depp along as the complicated chocolate king, fans were excited—and for most, the pair provided the beloved kid lit goods. Sure, some things are spiffed up for this reimagining, and few can top original cast members like Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca) and Peter Ostrum (Charlie). Still, it sings instead of sinking.
When he first tackled stop motion animation, Burton lent his name and his ideas to the now beloved Nightmare Before Christmas. For his second time within the format, he teamed up with Mike Johnson to make this satiric spook show romance. Depp is the voice of a harried dandy who is set to marry the dull Victoria Everglot. His cold feet leads to the resurrection of the title character, and her insistence that she and poor Victor are now married. As with any material mined from Burton’s own brain, there’s a sense of someone working close to their heart. The look and feel is fun… and fascinating.
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