Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.
Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.
As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.
There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.
Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.
I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.
At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.
Nate’s Grade: B
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children feels like Tim Burton’s X-Men franchise, and it’s just as awesome as that sounds. Burton has always had an interest in the outcasts and misfits of society and now he has his chance to leave an imprint on the ever-present superhero phenomenon. His own personal group of gifted youngsters is looking to form a funky family and fight against fearful forces that have their sights set on exploiting these special children or worse. It’s a natural fit for a man who has become a Gothic industry unto himself over three decades of peculiar and spooky filmmaking. This is Burton’s chance to flex franchise tentpole muscles with a subject matter perfectly attuned to his offbeat sensibilities, and watching the fabulous final product is akin to watching a master musician dive into Beethoven’s Fifth. This movie was flat-out delightful.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) is reeling from his beloved grandfather’s (Terrence Stamp) mysterious death. The old man loved sharing his stories about tending to the shape-shifting Ymbryne Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her wards, a group of children with special abilities including starting fires, controlling plants, invisibility, and being able to float lighter than air. On a trip to Wales to investigate grandpa’s stories, Jake discovers a time portal and is taken back to the WWII era where Miss Peregrine is waiting for him. She and her children relive the same day and will never age. They’re hiding from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his group of scientists who wish to hunt the children. Jake is tasked with being the new protector, as he is the only one that can see an invisible band of slender monsters known as hollows that feast on the children.
There’s a whimsical nature to the dark elements, and the script is rife with enjoyable payoffs and fun moments that cry out for a full visual immersion. This is Burton’s best film since 2007’s Sweeney Todd (I have a soft spot for that macabre musical), arguably best since 2003’s Big Fish, and maybe his most fun movie since his 90s heyday. If you’re a Burton fan, you’ll be tickled by all the imagination and humor. I grew up on the cinema of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas (yes, directed by stop-motion maven Henry Selick but still very much a Burton film), so I’ll admit that seeing Burton in high form once again warmed my little mischievous heart.
You get a sense just how involved Burton was in the filmmaking and its details, the degree of passion and involvement, and also his commitment to being a dark movie intended for peculiar children and adults with macabre interests all over the world. I kept thinking that the 12-year-old version of myself would have adored this movie, never mind the 34-year-old version of myself who greatly enjoyed it too. This feels like a natural evolutionary step for children and adolescents who gorged themselves on the works of Edward Gorey and R. L. Stine. It’s not a significant spoiler but it’s something I feel you, dear reader, need to know in order to properly assess just how wonderfully morbid the movie can come across. There is an entire visual feast of a group of villains dining upon the delicacy of… children’s eyeballs. You read that right. It’s a silver platter piled high with severed eyeballs, and they get slurped down like it’s spaghetti. I could only cackle to myself at the audacity of the movie to embrace the fun of the darkness rather than hiding from it, mitigating it, trying to be delicate with tone. The villains want to return to a normal state that can only be achieved by consuming the eyeballs of peculiar children, and so they are hunted not for sport or prejudice but for eyeballs. That’s wonderfully squirmy, and it definitely affected me, an avowed cinema patron who gets extra squirmy with any onscreen eye trauma. There are other creepy and memorable moments, like a dead child being used as a ventriloquist doll and the slenderman-styled hallows creatures. The moments are plenty but they don’t choke the story’s momentum, which hums along with great imagination and lucidity.
There’s a lot going on with Miss Peregrine, and Jane Goldman’s (Kingsmen) screenplay juggles a lot of rules and world building without losing momentum. I was intrigued early and the movie would widen its focus, providing more texture and connection to the world in calculated doses. It was enough that I always felt like I was learning something while still being able to see how the pieces snapped together in retrospect. There’s time travel that has to be done at a very specific point, the rules of who can travel back in time to these bubbles of safety, the history of this specific day stuck in time, the non-linear history of the protectors, the fact that the bubbles are also teleportation hotspots, the history with Jake’s grandfather, the history of the Ymbryne and their powers, the powers of all the peculiars, dream prophecy, mad scientists and their peculiar ailments, the differences between the hallows and the predatory scientists, and also establishing the character dynamics of several lost children and a budding YA romance. It’s amazing that Goldman’s script is as understandable as it is considering all that heavy lifting. It’s not completely free of muddled plot points and some hazy explanations, but those instances are a clear minority to what works so effectively. I wanted to know more about this world, and once they added time travel and teleportation, I was hooked. I enjoyed the movie so much that I’m considering reading the additional books for my next freaky fix.
The acting ensemble is full of bright spots and none brighter than the new queen of genre gusto, Eva Green. I raved about Green’s magnetic performance in the considerably lesser 300 sequel. She was easily the best part of that movie and it suffered whenever she wasn’t on the screen. The same can be said for the too-long-in-the-making Sin City sequel. She was the best thing in Burton’s otherwise forgettable Dark Shadows feature. In short, this woman is incredible, and she digs into the vampy and ridiculous with the right degree of malevolence and glee. Green is a wonderful hostess into this magical world, and her foreknowledge gives her a caffeinated energy that makes her even a tad more peculiar. Her children are all fine actors who have uneven parts thanks to the unfair distribution of their powers. Not everyone gets super useful abilities. I felt sorry for the kid who projected his dreams from his eyeball especially during the third act scuffles. A mouth in the back of the head doesn’t seem very useful either. I enjoyed the idea that the invisible kid needs to be fully naked to be fully invisible, and everyone acknowledges this reoccurring fact with shoulder-shrug nonchalance. The standout amongst the peculiars is Ella Purnell as the winsome girl who will float away. She has an innocent and yearning quality that doesn’t sink her character. She’s more than just a love interest to Jake and Purnell helps channel great affection. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) is expectantly highly entertaining as the lead villain and Butterfield (Ender’s Game) is perfectly acceptable as an audience surrogate into this wild world.
I was duly impressed with just about every element, from the structure of the screenplay and its precision with information and intrigue, to the level of acting, to the dark and whimsical tone, to Burton’s own peculiar particulars that fill out the film with adoration. It may sound corny but there is an affection woven throughout the film, for its dispirit outcasts, for their strangeness, for the ardor of telling a spooky story that can appeal to children without pushing away adults. There’s a care that’s been absent Burton’s other recent films, especially Dark Shadows, which left me bewildered whether Burton had any genuine fondness for the source material. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a haven for fans of the peculiar, Burton’s oeuvre, and those looking for a quality children’s film that has some bite. I can only hope for more fantastical adventures.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Like most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.
In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.
Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.
To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.
There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.
Another problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?
Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.
Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Tim Burton’s stop-motion remake of his own 30-minute short is a cute movie, even with the creepy subject matter. It’s the story of a boy and his dog and coming to terms with loss, although that seems to get stalled since the kid brings his dog back to life. Frankenweenie is, as my pal Eric said, Burton’s love letter to the Universal monsters of old, as other kids resurrect their pets into mummies, vampires, werewolves, etc. As a story, it’s pretty plain and seems thin and padded out. The animation is fun to watch but I couldn’t shake my questions about the character design. It feels like the only parts that move on these bulky faces are their tiny mouths. It’s a strange design that undercuts the animators’ efforts, and I couldn’t help comparing it to the superior and expressive animation from ParaNorman. I’d say this is the weakest stop-motion film with Burton’s name attached to it, but by no means is Frankenweenie a bad film. It’s got some fun jokes and any story about the loss of a beloved pet is going to have plenty of heart. There are some pretty solid jokes but they all seem to pool in the first act. I enjoyed Sparky the dog’s romance with the neighboring poodle, more so than any of the human relationships. Beyond the kid/dog aspect, I found it hard to engage with the movie. If you have to see one stop-motion animated film about the supernatural, check out ParaNorman instead.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Did you know that our sixteenth president had a rather unorthodox hobby, and it was really the purpose that drove him into politics and later the White House? That’s what the gonzo best-selling book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports. When he was talking about a house divided not being able to stand, he was secretly talking about vampires, you see. The film version, under the tutelage of producer Tim Burton, looks like it’d be an axe-swinging good time. I realize the absurdity of wishing the filmmakers had hewn closer to the source material, a radical reinterpretation of American history, but there it is. I cannot tell a lie.
Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a man determined to rid this new country of the scourge of vampires. His mother was murdered by a vampire landlord, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), when Lincoln was only a little boy. As an adult, Lincoln tries to avenge his mother’s death but Barts is too strong. Henry (Dominic Cooper) saves Lincoln and teaches him all about vampires and, more importantly, how to hunt and kill them. They strike up a partnership: Henry will provide names of vampire targets and Lincoln will dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Lincoln tries to live a solitary life but keeps building attachments; to his co-worker Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), to his childhood friend Will (Anthony Mackie), who needs Lincoln’s help to forge some slave papers, and the enchanting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Abe realizes the limitations of killing vampires one by one. The vampires are exploiting Southern slavery as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lincoln realizes the only way to foil the vampires is to eliminate slavery, and to do so he must be in a high government position, and so Lincoln retires his axe to turn to abolitionist politics.
It feels that rather than embrace the courage of its convictions, the movie is trying to please as many mass markets as possible. So many characters and storylines are inserted wholesale without any connection to the book. The film is almost unrecognizable from the book. Now, I’ll quit my bemoaning for the time being because a movie has to exist on its own merits, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is just a mess. As far as new characters included only to appeal to broad audiences, there’s the Black Best Friend, long a staple in movies meant to say, “Hey, our lead character is hip and has no problems with race,” but really it’s always been a depressing act of pander and I always feel sympathy for the thousands of black actors who have to compete over the limited best friend parts. Giving Lincoln a black best friend seems to remind the audience that Lincoln was against slavery, you know, in case anyone didn’t know anything about the man nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Then there’s the ascension of Mary Todd Lincoln into a feisty, strong-willed, formidable ally rather than the insular, clinically depressed woman she was in real life and in the book. Mary even gets some grand hero moments taking out a vampire in slow-mo coolness. The transformation of Mary feels just as big a pander as the character of Will. Then there’s the idea that Lincoln and his small inner circle of pals are placed in the center of action, like they alone and their heroic escapades single-handedly turn the tide of war. It’s handled so ham-handedly that it all plays out like they’re the Scooby Doo gang solving the Case of the Vampire Insurrection.
Lincoln’s history is given such shrift attention, just enough to fill out the standard tortured hero’s backstory for the aims of the story. We see Lincoln as a child but just enough to establish his tragedy and hunger for revenge. Then we cut to him as an adult and going to kill Barts. That’s quite a big leap in time with little careful setup. The time before Lincoln’s presidency is just enough to supply him with a stock character posse and a plucky love interest, and then it’s right to the Civil War. So much time in between the main events just gets squeezed out, and so Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels like it’s always one scene away from a clumsy montage.
The vampire threat, as presented, also feels too insurmountable. Not only can these vampires walk in the daylight, they’re super strong, super fast, and can make themselves invisible, a neat new trick. When they ally with the South they seem nigh unbeatable. The movie makes the mistake of making the adversary seem too powerful, so the eventual thwarting of the vampire Confederacy feels too easy and far-fetched given the magnitude of the threat. Adam (Rufus Sewell) is hinted at being like the first vampire, but then this idea is never picked up again. Why even hint at something significant if you have no intention of pursuing it? There’s another new wrinkle where vampires are incapable of killing their own kind. If this is the case then why aren’t the vampires turning every single person they can find into vampires? It shores up their side and guarantees less potential people that could kill them. I’m curious how certain swaths of southerners are going to react to seeing their beloved Confederacy teeming with devilish creatures. Then again, I think the romanticism of the Confederacy is hogwash. When insurrections win we call them revolutions of independence, and when they lose we call them treason. Guess what? The South lost.
As much as I enjoyed his book, I have to lay the blame at the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his book into the screenplay (he’s 0-2 this summer after his disastrous screenplay for the other vampire movie this summer, Burton’s Dark Shadows). Granted, I’m sure he got intensive notes on how to alter his story for the big screen; the whole projects reeks like it had too many cooks in the kitchen. The interconnection from the book, finding clever ways to marry history and alternative history together, have been ground down to stream line Lincoln into an American super hero. Not only is he handy with an axe, this Honest Abe can leap from racing horse back to racing horse back, and even get clobbered by a horse and keep on going. The coda at the end feels like a missed opportunity to carry on the Lincoln tradition into our modern age. With the clever reworking replaced by blockbuster superficiality, the film merely takes history and has it perform the outrageous rather than finding smart ways to connect all the outrageousness to the established facts.
What the movie has to the credit of director Timur Bekmambetov is a strong visual pulse. Bekmambetov directed 2008’s testosterone-soaked Wanted, so you know you’re going to get some crazy and eye-catching images on display. The action sequences do pack a punch and I’ll admit that seeing an axe utilized as an inventive martial arts weapon is considerably cool. There are two standout set pieces. The first is a fistfight between Abe and Barts in the middle of stampeding horses. You feel right in the thick of the action, horses stampeding all around, the sun setting to offer an eerie yet beautiful glow to the ordeal. It’s one of the more reality-stretching moments, as I noted above, but man if it isn’t thrilling and lovely to watch. The other standout sequence is a climax aboard a speeding locomotive itself atop a large wooden bridge engulfed in flames. Abe and Will stand back to back, swapping the axe to kill vampires, and then hey have to outrun the collapsing train. In these moments, the movie is joltingly alive, bursting with excitement and that rare yet glorious feeling of watching something beautifully different. I just wish this sensation wasn’t so fleeting in the movie.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a violent historical reworking that isn’t good enough to be properly entertaining and it isn’t bad enough to be considered camp. The film is mostly disappointing because it should feel far more engaging given its whacked-out premise the very cheeky promise of its title, and strong source material, a pulpy, ripsnorter of a read. The movie has some stellar standout moments but I think what ultimately hinders the entertainment value is how dumb everything comes across. This is not dumb in the winking, self-aware, satiric sense, but dumb in more of the blockheaded, Michael Bay, formulaic blockbuster sense. I wouldn’t even classify this movie as an enjoyably dumb, a silly summer slice of escapism like Battleship, which is looking better every week after new, disappointing summer releases (and it’s not even July yet!). The spirit of this movie is missing, the cleverness of the conceit drained, and the fun is bottled up. What this movie reminds me of is the stupid 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which took classic literary characters and threw them into a genre movie. Both movies figure the exercise alone, seeing classic literary or historical figures in absurd contexts, was enough to justify entertainment. I say that you have to work harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Dark Shadows was a daytime soap that aired for only a brief period of time as far as soaps are concerned, 1966-1971, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. The supernatural soap featured vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night, entangled in high-stakes drama and romantic excursions – it was the Twilight of its day. Director Tim Burton and his attached-at-the-hip collaborator, actor Johnny Depp, were fans as children and have kicked around a big-budget big screen version for years. Now that Dark Shadows hits theaters, you’ll be left wondering whether they really ever liked the original show or secretly despised it.
In the 1770s, Barnabus Collins (Depp) is the son of fishing and canning magnate in colonial Maine. He has a fling with Angelique (Eva Green), one of his family’s servant girls, and unfortunately for him, the gal is also a witch in her spare time. She curses the Collins family, killing Barnabus’ mother, father, and the woman he loves. She then turns him into a vampire, riles the villagers into mob mode, and Barnabus gets trapped in a coffin and buried for good.
Two hundred years later, a construction crew unearths an old coffin and out pops Barnabus from his prison. The world is a very different place. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) is running the Collins family manor and canning company, which has fallen on hard times. A rival canning company is snapping up fisherman contracts, and this company is led by none other than the same ageless Angelique. Elizabeth tries to conceal her distant relative’s unique “condition” from the rest of her family, her brother Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), and his son David (Gulliver McGrath), grieving the loss of his mother, moody 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), and caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). The Collins family also has a new hire, Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who looks strikingly like Barnabus’ lost love from 200 years ago. He becomes smitten with the new lass, who may be the reincarnation of his lost love. That’s enough to rev up Angelique’s wild sense of jealousy, as she tries to get her long-desired man and destroy anyone that stands in her way.
Is this ever one ghoulish mess of a movie. It never settles on a tone; is it supposed to be a larky tongue-in-cheek send-up, a Gothic melodrama, a dysfunctional oddball family comedy? What is this supposed to be, because whatever it is, it isn’t entertaining. Oh sure, it’s entertaining in a, “Where the hell is this going?” kind of way, but so is being kidnapped by a drifter. The movie feels like it has a box filled with ideas, and every so often it just shakes up that box, reaches inside, grabs one and says, “Let’s give this a try.” The screenplay, credited to author Seth Grahame-Smith (Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), is awash with half-baked ideas and poorly developed characters. The live-in doctor, played by the second stalwart of the Burton Repertory Players, Helena Bonham Carter, is a hoot. Carter (The King’s Speech) has got an edge to her and an interesting dynamic with Barnabus, but sadly her storyline is tied up far too quickly. The character of Victoria is a rather interesting one, a girl who could communicate with her ghostly former relatives, who happen to look just like her. The gal was sent to a mental asylum by her parents and escaped, compelled to come to the Collins mansion. Why in the world wasn’t she the movie’s protagonist? That is a far more compelling perspective than a goofy vampire who speaks all old timey. Seriously, the Barnabus stuff is your basic fish-out-of-water comedy, lazily commenting on the times. There is no joke that is too obvious for this movie (Barnabus inquires why Carolyn has no husband; Barnabus is fascinated by a lava lamp; Barnabus thinks Alice Cooper is an ugly woman – sigh). A lot of the shapeless narrative would be forgivable if the movie was just funnier. Barnabus is just not that fun of a character. His anachronistic verbiage gets dull when you discover that seems to be the movie’s one joke. You may start tuning him out like I did.
The movie feels like a collection of subplots and no main storyline to gather traction. We’re told that the youngest Collins, little David, is enamored with Barnabus, though considering we’ve only seen the two together in like one previous scene, this seems like quite a leap. Unless David has gotten particularly skilled at hiding behind rocks, we haven’t seen any of this. The entire character of David and his sleazy father could be eliminated and they would only minimally affect the story. And then there’s the late revelation that one of our characters has a hidden secret identity, a revelation that fostered no setup. When the character looks into the camera to explain and ends with a curt, “Deal with it,” it’s like Grahame-Smith himself is speaking directly to the audience, mocking it for hoping that the movie would actually do a good job of setting up and paying off character development and relationships. Stupid audience. Why can’t you just be happy with all that neat Tim Burton set design?
The final melee between the Collins family and Angelique keeps reminding you of the dashed promise of the flick. Angelique, in her witchy withiness, summons dark forces to make statues come alive. Well, sort of. They flail their arms a tad. And then she makes the walls bleed. Well, sort of. The dripping blood stops after just a few inches from where it began. If you’re going to make the house bleed, I want Shining-level torrents of the red stuff. The tonal inconsistency, matched with the muddled plot and scant character work, makes for a pretty frustrating bore of a movie.
You could usually count on Depp (Alice in Wonderland) for at least committing himself to another bravura weird performance, but the material fails him. He’s caked with alabaster makeup, given claw-like hands thanks to additional knuckles (why…?), and he’s trying his best to transform a list of peculiarities into a character, but like most things concerning the movie, it does not coalesce properly. I actually think the most entertaining actor in the movie is Green (Casino Royale). Part of that might be my hormones revved up from her frequent cleavage-baring outfits as the vampy villainous (no pun intended). There’s not much to her role but at least she has fun with it, bringing an admirable level of energy while her peers remain laconic, content to submerge into the 70s scenery. She shows a nice flair for comedy heretofore unseen. Strangely, Green adopts a slightly raspy voice that sounded like an imitation of, none other than, Helena Bonham Carter. If Burton’s note to his film’s young, frisky, sexy antagonist was, “Sound more like my wife doing an American accent,” then I think we’ve butted into something personal best left between husband and wife.
Ultimately, I have no idea who this movie is going to appeal to. The fans of the original soap will surely not be pleased with the jokey, tongue-in-cheek manner that Dark Shadows treats its source material. Fans of Burton’s stylized, dreamy, Gothic fairy tale visuals will find the film tedious and a poor waste of the man’s talents. Even the casual Depp fan will probably find the movie mostly unfunny, weird, and boring. The tonal whiplash never settles down, and the plot is replete with half-developed characters, ideas, and plot points. It just seems to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but that’s not the best way to tell a story. Not even Burton’s visuals or Depp’s performance can save this movie. Dark Shadows is unquestionably amongst Burton’s worst films (2001’s Planet of the Apes debacle takes the crown), made all the more inexplicable by the fact that Burton and Depp are self-described fans of the TV show. Maybe we all have different definitions of “fan” that I am not privy to. This movie deserves a quick death.
Nate’s Grade: C
Director Tim Burton seems like the perfect candidate to take on the imagery of author Lewis Carroll. I would argue that, short of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland is the most reproduced piece of literature in modern history. It’s going to take a keen vision to make these old characters interesting (the macabre American McGee video game sure felt like it could have been born from the mind of Tim Burton). Unfortunately, Burton and some 3-D wizardry are not enough to compensate for a story that only works in one dimension.
Alice (Mia Wasikoswki) is now a teenager girl who can barely remember her jaunt to Wonderland in her youth. She’s assigned to marry a simpering lord because in Victorian England that’s how women took care of their futures. Alice is more interested in taking over her dead father’s trading company. So when the time comes for her lord to ask for her hand in marriage, Alice stammers, says she needs some air, and chases after what looks like a rabbit with a pocket watch. She falls down a rabbit hole and winds up back in Wonderland, however it’s really known as Underland. It’s been 13 years since Alice visited this magical world, and in the meantime the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled as a tyrant quite fond of removing the bond between head and neck. Her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), was deposed and lives in exile. The (W)underland residents live in hope that an Alice will return and free them as an old prophecy foretells. She’ll have to rely on old friends, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to fulfill her destiny, and, why not, slay the Red Queen’s fearsome dragon, the Jabberwocky.
You would think that the combination of Burton, Depp, Lewis Carroll, and 3-D would produce an irrefutable masterpiece, at least from a visual and entertainment standpoint. I’m compelled to argue that the finished results are pretty much a mixed bag. The world of (W)underland seems fairly drab. Sure it was some big stuff and some weird stuff but from a color standpoint everything comes across as washed out, like Burton took one look and said, “Bright colors equate happiness. We can’t have that.” I understand the world wanting to convey a dispirited mood, but this isn’t any regular Burton film, this is Alice in Wonderland and we need a sense of, wait for it, wonder. Instead, we get an overwhelming feeling of drabness. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t catch the 3-D version of this movie for two reasons: 1) my wife’s head was hurting and she couldn’t take 90 minutes wearing nose-pinching, eye-hurting glasses that play with her depth of field, and 2) the 3-D shows were all sold out. I could tell which elements where intended to pop in a 3-D environment, namely the Hare always throwing objects as a calling card and the materialization of the Cheshire Cat. The tone isn’t too dark to scare the Disney families but at the same time there’s a bit more menace to the proceedings. The Red Queen’s bulbous, disproportionate head makes for an eye-catching visual that doesn’t get stale. (W)underland is a more hostile world but at the same time it’s not too threatening. Pretty much all the villains have some moment of redemption that makes them less threatening. The weirdest motif in the movie is eye gouging, which happens twice thanks to the same diminutive character.
Having said that, this is a visual decision that I could live with if the story engaged my senses more. Alice is now an older 19-year-old girl that has to defend (W)underland by fighting a dragon and suiting up in armor. She has to accept her destiny and be THE Alice and save the kingdom. The mystery of whether Alice is the one true Alice, look no further than the title, folks. He doesn’t remember anything from her first encounter in (W)underland and yet she has no sense of awe or curiosity. Also, why now do the residents of (W)unerland seek out Alice to rescue them? They never thought about reaching out in the 13 years the Red Queen has been ruling?
The plot is a fairly pedestrian “hero’s quest” that ends in a fairly pedestrian battle sequence where the armies of good and evil clash in CGI combat. The problem is that the original Alice in Wonderland source material really didn’t have much of a plot to it; it was really more a satire of the times, which featured Alice essentially going from one oddball to the other. The appeal was more the language than the story. It’s not the easiest piece of literature to adapt, to find a through line for a plot, so I guess making it about a hero’s destiny seems like the easiest, laziest path. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) assembles all the memorable characters but gives them little else to do, other than act mad. You may start to feel Alice’s sense of frustration after a while. Because of the threadbare story, you know exactly where the movie is going to be headed (wow, unintentional pun). In some ways this movie functions as a sequel and in some ways this movie functions as a remake, meaning that the plot is pretty much stuck trying to decide where to go next in a standard fantasy narrative device.
And then there’s the dance scene. Oh, the dance scene. How do I approach this gingerly? The climax that’s established is not Alice slaying the dragon, accepting her destiny, and (W)underland triumphing over the Red Queen’s tyranny. The climax is Depp break-dancing. You read that right, though the residents refer to his crazy legs movement as “futterwackin,” which sounds suspiciously naughty. It’s a moment so goofy, so tonally inappropriate that it shatters the entire notion of suspension of disbelief. It rips you out of the movie and all for a cheap laugh. It’s bizarre. I acknowledge that, given the fantasy framework, that the ending ought to stay in touch with the fantastical setting. But break-dancing? Would The Wizard of Oz have ended better if the Tin Man and the Scarecrow started break-dancing? At least the Tin Man could effectively perform the Robot. It’s a real-world artifact that has no place in the world of fantasy.
Depp is usually such a valued performer, digging deep into his character and reveling in their eccentricities. He’s the strangest and most exciting character actor that has become a box-office star. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from giving a rare bad performance. While nowhere near as off-putting as his Willy Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is more distraction than anything. He comes across like a figure grappling with post-traumatic stress, causing him to mutter incomprehensibly in a Scottish brogue. He’s tiresome after a while. Carter (Sweeny Todd) can be pretty shrill, playing the same overwrought note time and again, but she still manages to give the best performance in the movie. Hathaway just sort of acts flighty and raises her arms, waltzing around like she’s trying to imitate Depp’s Jack Sparrow. She’s entirely wasted. Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta) is a delight as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and our heroine, Wasikowska (HBO’s In Treatment) has a striking Grecian presence, even if her performance is more dour than it needs to be given the fanciful environment.
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp usually make for an unbeatable creative team, but I think Disney was the key figure in this arrangement. Alice in Wonderland wants to thrill without getting too scary, wants to delight without getting too original, and wants to dazzle without getting too weird. Burton’s visual inventiveness manages to make the movie entrancing at times and bewildering when the rest of the movie fails to live up to those fleeting moments. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the real-world Victorian scenes more than many of the ones in (W)udnerland. The film is just too disjointed and uneven to fully embrace, regardless of the 3-D upgrade. There are moments that I adored and moments that I could have lived without — like the break-dancing finale. The finished product isn’t a terrible night out at the movies, and there are plenty of enjoyable elements to savor. However, Alice plays like a familiar fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s creatures and rearranged them into a watered-down Lord of the Rings hybrid.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Famed musician/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s tale of murderous barbers, cannibalism, and poisoned hearts first debuted on Broadway in 1979. Sondheim has been very protective of his material when it comes to film rights, but it wasn’t until the combination of visionary director Tim Burton and acclaimed actor Johnny Depp that Sondheim allowed his revered musical to be made into a movie. The result is faithful production that expands the scope of the musical while maintaining an intimate, chamber-music feel. Sweeney Todd flirts with being a masterwork but settles for being incredibly damn entertaining.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after 15 years in prison on a flase charge. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, suitably creepy) wanted Barker’s wife for his own and conspired to have the barber sent away. Now under the auspices of Sweeney Todd, Barker has come back to seek his wife and daughter. He sadly learns that his wife is dead and his teenaged daughter, Johanna (Laura Michelle Kelly), is the ward of the Judge. Sweeney reopens his barber business above a flagging pie shop run by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Sweeney plots his revenge against the Judge and his henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall, suitable rat-like). Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who traveled with Sweeney back to London, has set his sights on Johanna and intends to run away with her as soon as she can escape the Judge. Meanwhile, a rival barber named Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Sweeney from the old days and wants his silence paid for. It’s not too long before things get dicey, throats get cut, and people get turned into meat pies.
People unaware of the Sondheim musical are going to be in for a big shock. The film is about 80 percent sung, and the singing never rises to big, show-offery numbers of crescendo power vocals; the songs are more in the variety of speaking and vocals frequently overlap. The movie has greater clarity to the lyrics, and for the first time I as able to actually decipher Joanna’s words in the song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Fans of traditional musicals, the kind that feature songs centered on female deer or large corn exporting states, may be aghast at how adult and violent the musical is. It’s just as much a grand horror movie as it is a musical. No doubt people are not generally accustomed to soaring medleys set to gashed throats and spurting blood. Sweeney Todd is captivating tale where almost all the characters are villains in some sense, and yet you do build sympathies even after innocents are killed and baked into flaky desserts.
Unlike other recent big screen versions of popular Broadway song-and-dance shows, Sweeney Todd is not simply the stage version transported to a bigger stage. This is a movie, through and through, and a perfect marriage. Burton is the perfect visionary to filter the twisted sensibilities of Sondheim’s masterpiece onto the silver screen. As a director, his work has been artistically backsliding since the start of this decade, but Sweeney Todd puts a firm stop to that. The technical aspects of Sweeney Todd are brought to life with great care and imagination. The Gothic sets are gorgeous and the costumes and cinematography are fitfully drab and dour, like everyone is living in a silent movie devoid of color; it takes a lot of hard work to create a near monochromatic playing field for the actors. And so when the blood does splash, and oh does it splash, the film pops with vivid color. Sondheim’s playful lyrics and rapturous music has never sounded better; it practically swoons.
The movie opens up the play in ways that a staged performance never could. Instead of keeping a distance from the bloodletting, usually something symbolic or as graphic as coloring a red line across a victim’s neck, Burton thrusts the audience right into Sweeney’s shop. The blood sprays in bright geysers and the violence is fully realized, fully felt, even if it’s never terribly realistic. The full weight of Sweeney’s vengeance and eventual destructive madness can be felt when the audience is witness to its wrath, and that includes the graphic murders. The medium of film ups the horror elements and transforms Sweeney Todd into a stronger work by amplifying the tension. The last scene with Mrs. Lovett is far more haunting than anything that could have been achieved on a stage. Burton also adds lots of dark humor thanks to his open visual palate, like during the song “By the Sea” where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about her and Sweeney cozying up together in different scenarios. The film transports the viewer to the different pretend locales all the while Depp remains gruff and indifferent. He maintains the same curmudgeon from fantasy postcard after fantasy postcard. It’s the cheeriest segment in a grimly perverse musical that could rival Hamlet for dead bodies.
In an effort to slice a three-hour musical to a manageable two-hour movie, screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator) has pruned the story down to the essentials, namely everything that impacts Sweeney’s ultimate pursuit of vengeance. Johanna and Anthony, the hopeful lovers, have been pared down the most. Their only scenes now revolve around intruding upon Sweeney or helping him meet his venomous goals. The lecherous songs the Judge sings to himself about his lust for Johanna has also been cut (my wife was severely disappointed by this cut, saying, “You’ve got the Rick, come on!”). The most notable omission is the opening medley “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that serves as a Greek chorus-like overview of the sordid tale ahead. The song provides a lot of back-story and exposition that can be more easily covered by Burton fashioning visual flashbacks of Sweeney’s former life. The ballad and other absent songs are still used instrumentally throughout the film. Logan has also turned Toby (Ed Sanders), Pirelli’s assistant, into a much younger character, turning him into an urchin boy with fresh memories of life in a workhouse. I’m not entirely sure Toby’s protective song to Mrs. Lovett “Not While I’m Around” becomes an ode to puppy love and loses some believability. Also, normally Toby is played as a man-child who isn’t entirely whole in his mental faculties; however, the movie version turns him into a plucky Oliver extra. It seems less devastating and tragic.
But what about the singing? Depp won’t be knocking down doors on Broadway anytime soon but he delivers a very satisfying baritone that, while lacking in power or refinement, delivers in spades with emotion. His singing is full of great texture. His song “My Friends,” an ode to being reunited with his razors, is full of brio and nuanced longing, but he really shows his talent when Sweeney loses it. He’s a man obsessed with vengeance and when it escapes his grasp he snarls with scary intensity. When he launches into “Epiphany,” where he determines the whole human race is fit to have their throats slit, he barks at strangers on the street and howls at the sky, smiling at his glistening razors in hand. What can be forgotten with musicals is that there is so much more to a performance than simply an adept ability to sing the right notes. With Sweeney, Depp spins an incredibly rich performance that plumbs the dark recesses of a man whose only purpose is vengeance. In the end, when he’s saturated in blood and the full reality of his actions is upon him, Depp goes from remorse to psychosis to horror to acceptance in, like, a minute flat. Seeing such a classic Broadway character done justice by an actor of Depp’s immense talent is thrilling and a bit of a relief to Sweeney fans.
Carter has the weakest, thinnest voice of the cast. Mrs. Lovett is a larger than life figure that has been played on Broadway by the likes of Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone. The role is usually played more boisterous, more comically broad. It’s a juicy part and full of brash bravado. Carter stumbles through “The Worst Pies in London” and she seems to step all over her lines, rushing through and losing the comedic flavor. But like I said before, a performance is so much more than singing, and it is here where Carter imbues great complexity to her role. Her unrequited love for Sweeney consumes her and her relationship with Toby places her in an awkward predicament. Carter flashes a wealth of emotions through the power of her eyes. It’s a battle between maternal and sexual urges. Stylistically she resembles a rag doll someone tossed in the trash but it all works.
It’s refreshing and exhilarating to see a perfect marriage of material and artistry. Burton has transported Sweeney Todd into a faithful and jubilantly dark movie that doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. It’s a stirring, wonderfully Gothic rendition of Sondheim’s masterpiece. Sweeney Todd is blissful, spirited entertainment that’s not exactly for the squeamish, but this is one musical that can simultaneously touch the heart while turning the stomach.
Nate’s Grade: A