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Looking at the list of elite directors whose participation alone Hollywood can open a megabudgeted production, Tim Burton’s name would seem the least likely to be penciled in alongside your Steven Spielbergs and your Michael Bays. Yet Burton, the former Disney animator with a morbid sense of humor, macabre visual motifs and penchant for championing outsiders and oddballs, has seen his work resonate with audiences and tally billion-dollar box-office grosses.
For years, Burton’s quirky and personal themes of death and alienation have defied the conventional marketing-firm wisdom of what average moviegoers seek on their trips to the multiplex. The irony is that this success makes Burton, who has confessed to feeling profoundly isolated and disconnected during his Southern California childhood, now one of the most popular kids in class. In 2009, more proof of the public’s continuing fascination with Burton and his brand came in the form of a solo art show: a gallery tribute curated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and dedicated to showcasing much of the flotsam that Burton has generated throughout his long and fertile moviemaking career.
The Burton show enjoyed a monstrously successful run at MoMA, crushing all previous attendance records there. This month, the show jaunted north and took up a six-month residence at the Bell Lightbox theatre in downtown Toronto. Fango attended the opening weekend, braving sizable crowds and blatant corporate sponsorship, hoping to garner some insight into the creative process behind one of modern cinema’s most beloved and unique figures.
The show is arranged chronologically, with VINCENT, Burton’s elegiac stop-motion ode to his idol Vincent Price, looping on a monitor to greet guests as they pass through the entrance. From there, the show is separated into installations, each designated for one of Burton’s many productions. These showcase sketches, character studies, handwritten notes, storyboards and the occasional leftover prop. Burton’s pen-and-ink artwork is frequently complemented with designs and sculptures from his collaborators on the individual films, such as longtime costume designer Colleen Atwood and CalArts classmate Rick Heinrichs.
Particular films enjoy special emphasis (the NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS display features a row of striking blown-up Polaroid photos depicting the film’s various characters) while others are relegated to more measly representation (ED WOOD gets a funhouse-door prop and angora sweater on a mannequin, nothing else). A special section pays respect to Burton’s lesser-known characters from his books and Internet side gigs, such as Stain Boy and Robot Boy. The latter is commemorated by a statue whose head opens like a garbage-can lid and slowly rises to expose Robot Boy’s iron skull innards. The lid then noisily clatters shut, making unsuspecting patrons peering inside jump.
Almost all of Burton’s artwork here demonstrates his signature aesthetic: thin-limbed and spindly scribbles that echo the moody figures of cartoonist Edward Gorey. The pieces framed along the walls of the exhibition range from canvas to construction paper to shreds of notebook pages, even restaurant napkins. As for his favored subjects, Burton likes to dwell on cute, comedic monsters and seems to nurse a true preoccupation with scary clowns. The most interesting portion of the show is to be found after the movie installations are finished: reams of drawings and doodles that go beyond Burton’s films as released to the public, as well as ideas he fomented for a number of aborted projects. There is a corner awash in fantastic early drawings for prospective animated features that, sadly, never progressed beyond these blueprints.
Tucked away in this corner is a character study of Superman that Burton drew in the late ’90s for his abandoned SUPERMAN LIVES!; his vision of a gaunt, pensive Superman wearing what looks like Edward Scissorhands’ leather clothing with an “S” symbol on the chest and sporting a teased emo haircut would surely have enraged comics purists had it been brought to the screen. Fango’s favorite material was a series of character designs done for Disney’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, all of which were rejected. Here we find creatures shaped like dining-room furniture and puffy lizard beings that trisect into small salamanders—refreshingly original and unsettling ideas explaining why, though they weren’t keen on actually realizing any of Burton’s concepts, Disney certainly wanted to keep his brain on the payroll.
There is a second, smaller room leading off from the main exhibit hall; this is where Burton’s earliest ephemera is stored, much of it done while he was still in grade school. We see a handbill for a horror-movie festival that a very young Burton organized for the Burbank Police Youth Band (for the record, Burton programmed PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE BRAIN THAT WOULD’NT [sic] DIE. A Dr. Seuss-influenced children’s book entitled THE GIANT ZLIG that Burton wrote and illustrated as a teen lies under glass, along with the subsequent rejection letter from Disney after Burton mailed the book to them for consideration. Monitors show Super-8 films Burton made with friends while growing up in Burbank, one starring young Burton as Harry Houdini. The films are shot to look like jerky silent movies, and are impressive for preteen backyard productions. Adjacent monitors chime in with some of the television commercials Burton has directed, as well as a music video: Burton’s very literal interpretation of The Killers’ song “Bones” from 2006.
Toward the end of the hall sits is a small-scale florescent carousel built by Burton especially for the Toronto exhibit, but the real surprise comes as patrons exit the show: a large screen showing what has been called the “lost” Burton film, HANSEL AND GRETEL. This one-off special, made in 1983 for the then-new Disney cable channel, was so bizarre that it was treated as radioactive by cautious Disney execs and locked away in a vault, never again shown in North America beyond its initial Halloween-eve airing. HANSEL feels like a deranged school play, with its crude pasteboard sets and screaming palette of primary colors. It’s a bizarre candy-coated nightmare hosted by Price, and it alone is worth the steep ticket price enter the show; where else can Fangorians witness gingerbread throwing stars, walls spewing geysers of pastel vomit and little Hansel planting a roundhouse kick square in the evil witch’s gut during the chaotic climax?
Upon exiting the show, an older gentleman who had accompanied his daughter through the exhibit buttoned up his coat and shook his head. “The boy is a little bit strange, huh?” Fango overheard him remark, to which his daughter just laughed. As fans are well aware, in Burton’s world, the strangers are kings, and this delightful, comprehensive show is more testament to that philosophy.
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