Tim Burton – Batman and Stop-Motion
Burton’s ability to produce hits with low budgets impressed studio executives, and he received his first big budget film, Batman. The production was plagued with problems and Burton repeatedly clashed with the film’s producers, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, but the most notable debacle involved casting. For the title role, Burton chose to cast Michael Keaton as Batman following their previous collaboration in Beetlejuice. Burton had considered it ridiculous to cast a “bulked-up” ultra-masculine man as Batman, insisting that the Caped Crusader should be an ordinary (albeit fabulously wealthy) man. Burton also cast Jack Nicholson as The Joker in a move that helped assuage fans’ fears, as well as attracting older audiences not as interested in a superhero film.
When the film opened in June 1989, and became one of the biggest box office hits of all time, grossing well over $400 million worldwide (numbers not adjusted for inflation) and earning critical acclaim for the performances of both Keaton and Nicholson. The success of the film helped establish Burton as a profitable director.
In 1990, Burton co-wrote (with Caroline Thompson) and directed Edward Scissorhands, re-uniting with Winona Ryder from Beetlejuice. His friend Johnny Depp was cast in the title role of Edward, who was the creation of an eccentric and old-fashioned inventor (played by Vincent Price in one of his last screen appearances). Edward looked human, but was left with scissors in the place of hands due to the untimely death of his creator. Set in suburbia, the film is largely seen as Burton’s autobiography of his childhood in Burbank. Price at one point is said to have remarked, “Tim is Edward.” Depp wrote a similar comment in the foreword to Mark Salisbury’s book, Burton on Burton, regarding his first meeting with Burton over the casting of the film. Edward is considered one of Burton’s best movies by some critics.
Burton agreed to direct the sequel for Warner Brothers on the condition that he would be granted total control. The result was Batman Returns which featured Michael Keaton returning as the Dark Knight, and a new triad of villains: Danny DeVito as The Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck, an evil corporate tycoon and original character created for the film. Darker and considerably more personal than its predecessor, concerns were raised that the film was too scary for children. Audiences were even more uncomfortable at the film’s overt sexuality, personified by the sleek, fetish-inspired styling of Catwoman’s costume. Burton made many changes to the Penguin which would be applied to the Penguin in both comics and television. While in the comics, he was an ordinary man, Burton created a freak of nature resembling a penguin with webbed, flipper-like fingers, a hooked, beak-like nose, and a penguin-like body (resulting in a rotund, obese man). Released in 1992, Batman Returns grossed $282.8 million worldwide, making it another financial success, though not to the extent of its predecessor.
Next, Burton wrote and produced but did not direct, due to schedule constraints on Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for Disney, originally meant to be a children’s book in rhyme. The film was directed by Henry Selick, based on Burton’s original story, world and characters. The film received positive reviews for the film’s stop motion animation, musical score and original storyline and was a box office success, grossing $50 million. A deleted scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas features a group of vampires playing hockey on the frozen pond with the decapitated head of Burton. The head was replaced by a jack-o’-lantern in the final version.
In 1994, Burton and frequent co-producer Denise Di Novi produced the 1994 fantasy-comedy Cabin Boy. His next film, and I believe his best, Ed Wood (1994), was of a much smaller scale, depicting the life of Ed Wood, a filmmaker sometimes called “the worst director of all time”. Starring Johnny Depp in the title role, the film is an homage to the low-budget science fiction and horror films of Burton’s childhood, and handles its comical protagonist and his motley band of collaborators with surprising fondness and sensitivity. Owing to creative squabbles during the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman declined to score Ed Wood, and the assignment went to Howard Shore. While a commercial failure at the time of its release, Ed Wood was well received by critics. Martin Landau received an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi, as well as the Academy Award for Best make-up.
Having been overlooked for Batman Forever by the Warner Bros. heirachy, Burton reunited with Henry Selick for the musical fantasy James and the Giant Peach, based on the book by Roald Dahl. The film, a combination of live action and stop motion footage was mostly praised by critics, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score (by Disney regular Randy Newman).