Is It Time for Tim Burton to Find His ‘Schindler’s List’?

If you’re looking for a parallel, how about starting with Hook. You remember Hook, don’t you – the high concept rewriting of Peter Pan that was supposed to signify Steven Spielberg’s more mature fulfillment of his F/X fantasy propensities? The Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle that took J. M. Barrie’s tale of ageless whimsy and rewired it to a hectic post-Greed decade gimmick? Expectations were massive, especially since Mr. ET was seen as the only person who could make this otherwise conceivably cloying concept work…and guess what? He failed miserably. While more or less tolerable, Hook is now seen as the source for much Spielberg soul searching. The result? The ridiculously addictive return to form, Jurassic Park, and the Oscar-worthy aesthetic wake-up call his career was demanding – Schindler’s List.

So if you’re looking to give the water-treading work of 2010 Tim Burton a shot in the substance, let’s link his look at Alice and her adventures in “Underland” and the seeming sense of self-referential mockery he is presently locked into. When it was announced that everyone’s favorite Gothic goofball was exploring the possibilities of Lewis Carroll’s love letter to some unrequited Victorian jailbait, many in movie fandom started to froth. Just imagine, Tim Burton taking on such noble literary icons as The Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen, the hookah smoking Caterpillar, and most importantly, the always Mad Hatter. With his wild imagination and ability to translate it to celluloid, it seemed like a perfect cinematic marriage. The initial teaser trailer kept said tongues wagging and working overtime.

Even when it was discovered that Burton was actually riffing on, not specifically referencing Carroll’s tome, the voices of approval continued their cat calls. The story, centering on a more mature Alice, her decision to forgo an unfortunate marriage, and a return trip back to Wonderland (complete with the standard Tweedledee and Tweedledumpling of recognizable characters) was intriguing to most. But a few, especially those who clearly remember being burned by Spielberg back at the beginning of grunge, took the concept of recreating Alice in this new and supposedly novel way and starting having flop flashbacks. It wasn’t long before such sentiments showed up in print, websites like HitFlix and magazines like Entertainment Weekly tearing Burton’s new Emperor’s bodice a few hack holes.

Back a few months ago, we commented on how underwhelming the film’s vision truly appeared. We didn’t buy Johnny Depp as a Day-glo mime Hatter, or the nepotistic necessity of Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen in all her inflated cranium craziness. For every element that looked like it would work (we dig the creepy Caterpillar) or manages to salvage itself (Stephen Fry is a ‘purr-fect’ choice as the toothsome feline), there are parts that appeared creatively slapdash and sketchbooked. In a film like Beetlejuice, where Burton is more or less forging his own world, such a merry mishmash shines. Even in more straightforward stories like Edward Scissorhands or Sleepy Hollow, he can control his inventive Id to find a decent entertainment equilibrium.

But with Alice, Burton appears to have let his muse go moldy. He’s no longer really original, just obvious. One look at the costume design for Depp should indicate how far off base he is. Previous incarnations of the character didn’t resemble a Cirque du Soleil reject, nor did prior performances cast him as a bubble-headed boob. Similarly, the ratty, antiqued attic dweller look to the creatures comes directly from Jim Henson Studios and their work on Dreamchild. Doing dark and foreboding is one thing. Turning it all into a grrrl power version of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky seems a bit like indirect plagiarism.

Still, it’s Hook that sticks in your craw more than any other referenced work. Spielberg spent so much goodwill greasing this pointless project that he’s still trying to win back a percentage of his formerly rabid fanbase. Even worse, Hook is now seen as a cynical low point, an “I can do anything” ideal superimposed on a filmmaker who seemed to be doing little more than once again working out his ever-present deadbeat dad issues. That is why Alice is Burton’s albatross, the seemingly perfect marriage of maker and material that, if current consensus is to be believed, serves neither very well indeed. While one doubts that the cinematic eccentric sees things this way (besides, he has his take on Planet of the Apes to still live down), it’s clear that his next move needs to be as radical as Schindler was to Spielberg.

A Depp-drive update of Dan Curtis’ Dark Shadows won’t do it – unless Burton goes for a flawless recreation of the ABC soap’s somber ’60s period cool. And remaking his celebrated short Frankenweenie into full length feature has a similar set of backward glancing predicaments to derail it. Like Hook, Alice will make money, and even have those defenders for whom critical life began when Pee Wee Herman had his first big adventure. Many will find it magical. Others will assume its “typical Tim Burton” and choose to ignore it completely. But what he needs right now is a new direction, a project that allows him to tap into something more than an old sketch pad loaded with Stain, Oyster, and Mummy Boys.

Ed Wood was close, if too cartoony. What Burton needs is a serious story that can save him from himself. What that would be, however, is hard to imagine. That’s because Burton has made more than enough bank out of playing the talented, misunderstood artist. He’s rallied under-appreciated efforts like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride into high school clique communiqués. He’s never shown a true desire to be seen as a legitimate dramatist, and his sole stretch for awards season glory – Big Fish – came and went with little of the surrounding obsessive clamor.

But if he keeps redoing the same pen and ink protestations he’s hampered with here, he is headed toward the realm of self-spoof…if he isn’t there already. It’s hard to say what Burton would see as his Schindler’s – i.e. his ball-peen hammer to the brain, his silent scream into solid serious filmmaking. Whatever it is, he had better find it quick. It’s not long before he’ll become a parody of himself – and when that happens (and it will) no Hook can recapture an audience.