Last week I read a piece in The Guardian about how Wes Anderson and Tim Burton have both begun to wear thin stylistically. This came not long after listen to the folks on the Extra Hot Great podcast make a similar negative comparison to Tim Burton in their discussion of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. I’ve heard people complain about Wes Anderson’s apparently stunted growth as a filmmaker ever since The Life Aquatic came out in 2004 and always found it somewhat off-base, but now I finally understand why. Never before had I heard the comparison to Burton, but now that I have it all makes sense. All the complaining. All the jabs at Anderson for falling on stylistic crutches and repeating themes. I have similar complaints about Burton.
There is a difference, though, between Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. While Wes Anderson continues to tell stories informed by a stylistic lens, Tim Burton has effectively stopped telling stories, favouring instead the ability to treat his production like a stylized playground. Where one ends and the other begins is difficult to tell, but it’s an important distinction nonetheless.
For those counting, I’ve seen every film Wes Anderson has ever done, and I’ve also seen every Tim Burton film up to Alice in Wonderland. I haven’t seen Dark Shadows so I won’t comment on it except to say that reviews appear to confirm Burton’s general trends have continued. It’s possible to accuse both directors of over-indulgence bordering on stylistic self-parody, there’s no question there. But style is great. I love style. I wish more filmmakers went out of their way to create as distinctive a visual and atmospheric tone as either Wes Anderson or Tim Burton. These directors are the very definition of auteurs. Their works are identifiably their own and their visual flares are complimented by consistent thematic explorations. If the only complaint somebody has about either Wes Anderson or Tim Burton is that they continue to make films of a similar style to their previous films, well, that’s a stupid complaint.
The problems begin when that style becomes the only thing worthwhile about their films. Wes Anderson is not even close to crossing this line for me, but Tim Burton crossed it a long time ago. The last film of his I really liked was Big Fish. In fact, I love that film. It’s a beautiful story about a son coming to know his father through the magic of, well, stories. It’s beautiful to look at and it makes me cry every time I watch it. It appears, though, that after Big Fish, Tim Burton lost his way. He’d made some bad films before Big Fish, but those were mostly cases of good intentions not working out. Post-Big Fish we’ve seen a different Tim Burton. One who appears less interested in the stories he’s telling than the opportunity they afford to lavish big budgets on his crazy stylistic experiments.
Take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example. A wonderful book already made into a wonderful film, but Burton decided to take on the project anyway. While the opening of the film, which stays true to the book, is quite good, the larger section beginning at the arrival of Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka displays Burton’s total lack of interest in the story itself. The mishmash of tones and visual styles is certainly cool and impressively designed, but between those odd visuals and Johnny Depp’s Michael Jackson/rapist-like performance, Burton completely loses the spirit of the story. He’s simply too focused on his style to care that the film as a piece of storytelling has stopped dead in its tracks.
A one-off failure wouldn’t be a problem, but Burton’s films have continued to show the same basic problems. Sweeney Todd was an example of Burton going for an extremely dark tone at the expense of story, exemplified perfectly by the removal of that musical’s chorus, which provides the original piece with its satirical edge. The less said about Alice in Wonderland, the better. In that one even the style was awful. Neat design concepts hampered by absolutely terrible CGI.
Perhaps the best of his post-Big Fish films is Corpse Bride, a stop-motion animated film once again featuring Johnny Depp. While watching the film there’s an overriding sense of “what’s the point?” It’s as though Burton took all the good-will he had earned in creating and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas and decided to try stop-motion again, this time as director, but with no other motivation. The style of animation was a means to itself. The story? An afterthought. Not a terrible story, just not very developed.
Contrast this with Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion outing, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson started with the intent to tell the story in that Roald Dahl book and expanding into something that could be a feature film. In considering how to make the film he landed on stop-motion animation. Story first. Stylistic experiment second. Really all Anderson did was tell a story with themes similar to most of his other films and in a visual style very close to his regular one, albeit more colourful and animated. Critics loved it.
Meanwhile, Anderson’s film before Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, met with a lot of critical backlash. Oh look, Wes Anderson doing another film with his same visual flourishes and thematic focus on rich white people. Sure, as though all the film had going for it was auterist indulgence. It’s no wonder that in the years since its release many critics have re-appraised The Darjeeling Limited, picking up on its tight structure and deft character writing and portrayals. This is because, despite many people feeling it’s bad to repeat the same style over and over, the most important thing is that the style is used to tell an engaging story.
Moonrise Kingdom continues to set Wes Anderson apart. There’s no doubt it’s stylized. It’s got all the Wes Anderson hallmarks, and by being even more heightened, the film becomes perhaps the director’s most Wes Anderson-y film. First of all, that style is beautiful, but it also services the story. This isn’t the more grounded tale of Max Fischer in Rushmore or the goofy family drama of The Royal Tenenbaums. Moonrise Kingdom is a story about young children in love that’s meant to evoke the feelings and emotion of that moment. It’s purposely designed to resemble a fantastical and off-beat children’s book, not unlike the books Suzy Bishop steals from the library in the film. The style isn’t a means to itself, rather it’s a means to the story, and the story is inextricable from the style. That’s the best kind of filmmaking.
So no, Wes Anderson is not Tim Burton, and though they can be compared on some level, it’s pretty clear to me that where Tim Burton has lost touch with the art of storytelling, Wes Anderson continues to knock it out of the park by perfectly combining story with a unique and lovely style.
What are your opinions on Wes Anderson and Tim Burton? Love them both? Which are your favourite films by them? Let me know in the comments!