I can’t tell you how many times over the last 17 years I’ve gotten all excited seeing an incredibly cool trailer for a film only to have my expectations shattered to see Tim Burton’s name attached to the movie. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Tim Burton. He’s been responsible for some films I love, but I do generally consider his involvement with a movie as a curse rather than a benefit. I can pinpoint the exact day that I came to this decision about about Tim Burton. It was the evening of June 19th, 1992. I was walking out of Batman Returns consciously thinking “wow, that film was 99% style, and whatever the other 1% was it, it sure wasn’t substance.” And that formed my impression of Tim Burton’s general record as a film maker and it’s a record that he tends to live up to more often than not. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten some entertainment value from several of his movies, even some he’s directed. But even the films I really enjoyed, like Edward Scissorhands, struggled mightily to give me something that overshadowed the “vision” and give me something substantial.
Now you don’t have to tell me that Tim Burton loves to shove his name on every project he happens catch out of the corner of his eye. I loved Nightmare Before Christmas and I’ve heard plenty of moaning that he pretty much had a two paragraph concept that got developed and made by others, but it was still that Tim Burton dark vision that tries shove that heartwarming story in the middle of subversive world. I can hear all of you Burton lovers screaming “you just don’t understand, man.” I do understand. He loves a good looking flick. I can understand his fan’s appreciation of his work, but just because something has a visual style and atmosphere that is expertly done doesn’t mean that there’s something there that isn’t.
So, I admit that Burton, after bringing two incredibly joyous movie-going experiences to me in the 80s –Beetlejuice and Batman– could tarnish me for the next 17 years over one incredibly sour one, basically, Batman Returns. Well, let me say that whenever I run into a huge Batman Returns supporter, they inevitably a Tim Burton fan as opposed to a Batman or comic book fan. I remember the first Batman Returns argument I had in 1992 with a fellow student and coworker. I thought he was absolutely crazy. I heard the argument about the expansion of the incredible vision of Gotham City he had started to build in the first. The angst…blah blah blah. That, for me, was the problem. I need a story in there. I could even accept the film as is, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you can pretty much take the character of Batman out of Batman Returns and it suffers nothing. He really has little impact on the story or the plot. In fact, Michael Keaton even disappears for a third of the movie. The film even failed as a psychological drama about two people’s neurosis.
Okay, I guess I have to talk about 9. Yes, I immediately got disappointed when I saw the Burton’s name shoved in the middle of a half dozen other producers. But the film looked so cool in the trailers. It’s probably the first Tim Burton associated project I really wanted to see in a dozen years. So I gave it a chance.
First, even for a week night jaunt, I got a bad “word of mouth” feeling about 9 walking into the cinema. The first trailer had just started and there was no one in the theatre. For the record, this is the first time I’ve entered a theater after the lights had dimmed to see no one else in there since a late, late weeknight show of the excellent and under-appreciated Quick Change with Bill Murray, Gina Davis, and Randy Quaid in 1990. For those that haven’t seen it, it’s a brilliant piece of work, devastatingly funny-Netflix it with all speed if you haven’t seen it.
In any case, this 7:20PM 9 showing was empty. Eventually, there was an additional patron that entered after the actual film had started, but it was not a substantial enough audience to keep me from putting up all the armrests and laying across the seats and passing gas without apology during the film. So what about 9? It was visually brilliant, striking and beautiful. The performances were excellent from Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer-basically excellent across the board. And the story, what little of it there is, was acceptable. However, this brief movie spends the first hour of it’s 80 minute run time meandering in an obscure, esoteric world with almost no relatable frame of reference for the viewer. In my mind, classic Tim Burton in the bad way. The problem really begins for me with the lack of a solid foundation in either pure fantasy or any relatable reality.
Let’s compare that to a “Tim Burton” film I loved, Nightmare Before Christmas. Nightmare established itself immediately as fantasy and established the rules and guidelines of it’s fantasy world right out of the gate. I was on board and I rolled with that from the enchanting story all the way through the outstanding music. So 9 begins giving us a brief background of fictional world where a 1940s era militaristic society reminiscent of Nazi Germany creates a Steampunkish version of Skynet from the Terminator series. Man makes machines. Machines take on life of their own. Machines destroy mankind. I can roll with that. In fact, I’m down with that completely. Okay, what’s left? Well, 9 puppets are left. Make it 8 puppets and one Oogie Boogie puppet ala Nightmare Before Christmas only this time with a half a pair of scissors tied to a rusty nail. What are these puppets? Why are they? Do we need to know? Well, kinda.
I tried. I really tried to roll with it. The puppets have some sort of life. Are they machines? Well, they seemed to be threatened by the machines that are left, so it’s hard to determine. Why do they have life? They really seem to be more ragdoll than mechanics. Why is my old, uncreative mind having trouble accepting this for what it is? It’s a bunch of puppets fighting a bunch of hybrid machines, one of which looks suspiciously like it was constructed by the evil Sid from Toy Story.
The problem is the story keeps forcing us back into hints that it IS important what these puppets purpose and origins are, so you aren’t allowed to enjoy it for what it is. It’s trapped in this twilight between fantasy and technological speculation and it never lets you go too far either way. It never allows you buy 100% into either vision for the story and after 45 minutes, even though the character of 9 was charming and likeable, I began to not give a flying flip whether the mechanical dogs and pterodactyls sucked the mysterious life force out of these puppets or not. I just wanted the story to go somewhere. Admittedly it does, hastily, in the brief and rushed third act where suddenly all these technological pieces and symbols suddenly become very important even though the end credits roll without adequately explaining any of it. It’s a big slap in the face to the audience. Just accept that this piece of metal does this and means this and this thing does this when it’s put there and the cold, heartless, soul-less machines have some unexplained ability or need to suck the souls out of these rag dolls.
Better yet, lets turn the whole thing into a cross between a ghost story and fundamentalist religious tale to wrap it all up. So basically, we have a cheesy, 1940s post-apocalyptic cross between Raggedy-Ann, Christian Mythology and the end of Return of the Jedi. I’d say it’s all kind of a big mish mash mess except there’s not even really enough substantive pieces of the story to make it too big of a mess. It’s not awful, but it’s not very good. It’s moderately entertaining, and infinitely unsatisfying, only made bearable by a stunning visual style, entertaining performances and some a few nifty sequences that lead to a conclusion that will make even the most spiritual and woo-striken of us to cringe with embarrassment at the cheese-factor. Hey, it IS classic Tim Burton.
That’s the end of my review, but for the record, I loved Ed Wood. Probably Burton’s best since the 80’s, and Michael Keaton is still hands down the best screen Batman (not to mentioned the outstanding Beetlejuice).