It should come as no shock to the fans of director Tim Burton that he spent his formative years glued to the tube, watching old cartoons and horror flicks. Such early influences no doubt helped to form the deliciously ghoulish and artfully warped sensibility of a director who was to become known for his forays into the bizarre outer regions of mainstream celluloid. The emphasis on "mainstream" is notable: Burton's career has been distinguished in part by the director's skillful ability to remain just inside the realm of the mainstream while producing work of a decidedly unconventional vision.
A native son of Southern California, Burton was born in Burbank on August 25, 1958. He never really took to suburbia, where he was raised, and instead of joining little league or selling lemonade spent his time drawing, watching old horror movies, and reading the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Winning a scholarship in 1980 to the Disney-created California Institute of the Arts, Burton went to work as an apprentice animator at Disney. It was an aesthetically and financially dead period for Disney animation (megahits like The Little Mermaid were years in the future), and Burton's most vivid memories of his time at the studio were of constant firings, ill-will, indecisiveness, and paranoia. He felt decidedly out of place working on cartoons like The Fox and the Hound, later saying "I was just not Disney material. I could just not draw cute foxes for the life of me." For their part, the Disney higher-ups weren't interested in any of Burton's independent ideas, and refused to release his 1984 short Frankenweenie on the grounds that it was "unsuitable" for children. His first animated short, Vincent -- a 1982 tribute to his idol Vincent Price, who also narrated the film -- met with a similarly cool reception from Disney executives.
After leaving Disney, Burton found both greater creative freedom and commercial success thanks in part to actor/comedian Paul Reubens, who was looking for someone to helm a film about his alter-ego, Pee-Wee Herman. Reubens had watched Frankenweenie; impressed with what he saw, he helped to get Burton hired on as the director of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985). Burton wisely treated the whole project like a live-action Looney Tune, and the film, originally intended for limited release as a kid's picture, became one of Warner Bros.' biggest hits of the early '80s. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure led to the director's next project, Beetlejuice (1988), a comic twist on all the "Shock Theatre" pictures that had kept him up late as a child. The success of the film led to a job directing the 1989 big-budget version of Batman; a darkly lavish, gothic production, the film proved to be a huge hit, securing Burton a place on the roster of A-list directors.
His next film, 1990's Edward Scissorhands, had a lot in common with Burton's earlier Frankenweenie. It was the tale of an artificial boy put together by a benign scientist (Vincent Price again, in one of his last performances), who unfortunately dies before he can complete the boy; as a result, the fabricated youth has hedge clipper-like scissors for hands. Alternately frightening, funny, and touching, Edward Scissorhands proved that Burton could inject humanity and audience empathy into an otherwise unbelievable yarn. By this point Burton was able to write his own Hollywood ticket, which resulted in a lucrative contractual arrangement with his one-time employer, Disney. The company that once refused to release his work now practically tripped over itself giving him carte blanche to produce his next project, a stop-motion animated cartoon about the King of Halloween kidnapping Santa Claus. The film came to fruition as 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas; although it wasn't the hit everyone hoped it would be, Nightmare was irrevocably Burton's film and his film alone, from drawing board to final release. Disney also put Frankenweenie into mass-market distribution at long last, running the onetime "untouchable" film over and over again on cable's Disney Channel.
In addition to his series of successes, there have been a few missteps in Burton's career, notably the lackluster Family Dog (1993), a TV cartoon series co-produced by Steven Spielberg; there was also the middling Cabin Boy, a 1994 film vehicle for Chris Elliott which Burton co-produced. In 1994, Burton again rode high in film-critic circles thanks to his long-awaited Ed Wood (1994), the biopic of another visionary filmmaker, Edward D. Wood Jr., widely celebrated as the worst director in movie history. Burton well understood how it feels to be unappreciated for one's enthusiasms, and Ed Wood, deliberately filmed to emulate Wood's seedy visual style, has emerged as one of the most affectionate film biographies ever made.
After producing the 1995 Batman sequel, Batman Forever, Burton returned returned to the animation style of Nightmare Before Christmas with a 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic James and the Giant Peach. Later that year, he had great fun using an all-star cast in his spoof/homage to 1950s horror movies, Mars Attacks! Overshadowed by the simultaneous release of the mega-budgeted Independence Day (1996), and uneven with its blend of humor and sci-fi horror, Mars Attacks! was the sort of film that might have made Ed Wood proud. In 1999, Burton returned to the director's chair with Sleepy Hollow, an adaptation of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleep Hollow. Starring Burton regular Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, the film promised moviegoers another dose of the lush, gothic sensibility that Burton served up with such flair.
In 2001, Burton took to the director's chair in an attempt at reviving another dormant franchise, The Planet of the Apes. Promising a "re-imagination" of the ape planet concept rather than a straight remake, Burton's version of the film stars Mark Wahlberg stepping into Charlton Heston's shoes as the astronaut stranded in unfamiliar simian territory. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi