I grew up as the biggest Tim Burton nut around. I worshiped his Batman pictures and they turned me into the Bat-fanatic I am today. For most of my life, the original Batman was my all-time favorite film. I adored Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice as much as any other like-minded film nerd. I saw Ed Wood, his career-peak, on opening night and took it personally when Mars Attacks! flopped. But, with not a little sadness, I must admit I'm not the least bit excited about Alice in Wonderland. Oh, I'll see it in IMAX 3D, and hopefully the film will be better than it looks (word of mouth is all over the map). Part of it is the advertising campaign, which seems to be mixing inexplicable Lord of the Rings type adventure with Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter mugging like Mike Myer's The Cat in the Hat. Frankly, this is the first Tim Burton film that just doesn't look all that interesting to me. But I think that I realize that part of the problem is the realization that Tim Burton is basically going to spend the rest of his career doing 'Tim Burton's version of... (insert famous property)'. One of the most original visual artists in the business now seems content to piggyback on the genius of others.
Big Fish may have been adapted from a novel, but it at least felt original and dealt with themes outside of the whole 'outsider struggling to fit in' bit. It was jolting to see a Tim Burton movie that was actually set on planet Earth, it was refreshing to see Burton working with a cast outside of his usual talent pool, and the final ten minutes or so made me bawl like a newborn. Sweeney Todd was pretty great, but he had been wanting to make that for at least fifteen years (to be fair, it turned out much better than Scorsese's Gangs of New York). It just seems that after the scare of the twin financial flops (Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!) combined with the daggers hurled at him over Batman Returns, that Burton decided to not venture too far outside his safe zone and the safe zone of conventional Hollywood franchise pictures. I would argue that his comeback picture, Sleepy Hollow, was very much the 'ultimate Tim Burton movie' (for better or worse) and that nearly everything after that just felt like a retread in one form or another.
I've liked, if not loved, most of Burton's post-Sleepy Hollow output. I liked The Corpse Bride, as it's actually better written than The Nightmare Before Christmas. While it's still Burton's worst film, I still dig the 'f-you' ending of Planet of the Apes. I more or less enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, and I appreciated his new themes involving children truly getting to know their fathers before its too late. Sweeney Todd was a relatively faithful adaptation of a classic musical, which is all it needed to be (although the apolitical Burton stripped most of the social content regarding classicism from the text). But Burton probably knows that there isn't all that much that he can do to surprise us at this point. We know that his films will likely deal with an outcast struggling to fit in inside a world gone mad, and perhaps with lingering father issues. Over the last 20 years, the visual style of Burton's filmography have become so consistently aped as to render his own work borderline cliche. Tim Burton has gone from Hollywood's darkest mainstream maverick to the guy who parents can trust to gently scare their kids without truly unsettling them.
On the other hand, he's married with two kids and seems reasonably content. It's tough to maintain your rep as king of the outcast geeks when you're 50-years old, one of Hollywood's few marquee directors, and have achieved a sense of domestic bliss in the bargain (personally, I can't wait for the irony of Burton's kids growing up and starting to dress 'goth'). It's hard to be an outsider in a system that has given your work such success and acceptance that it has received its own exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art. Still, a little creative downturn may be a small price to pay for personal bliss. As I mentioned when discussing Jim Carrey's Yes Man back in December 2008, a slight neutering of the trademark impulses is a fair trade for a once-tortured entertainer actually being happy. So here's to his continued happiness. Let us just hope that Tim Burton dares to step out of his personal sandbox just a few more times before he retires.