Watching Burton’s Alice in Wonderland you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a crossover with no blend. Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass was the darker tale, but the original remains nothing more than an innocent trip through wonderland. It’s this strange wonderland that Burton pulled up and passed through his nightmare filter, leaving the peculiar world of Alice touched by his gothic polish. He cut the darker themes from the later books and inflated them until the original story could barely be made out.
Watching Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory you’d think there was no film his style wouldn’t suit. Even in the most juvenile children’s tales there’s always some edifying element, and who better than Burton to twist these elements into something more sinister. The few liberties Burton takes only add to the background of the original story, his imagination transitions so fluently and this imagination itself is like nothing else in contemporary cinema.
There’s no resolution to this conflict. For almost as long as he has made films Burton has been either hit or miss. But while the golden era of Burton is arguably a time passed, he has at the very least proved that some magic still lays dormant with the mixed success of his more recent films Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Big Eyes. So how should we feel now that his adaption of Dumbo has been announced, and too that his next film will supposedly be a sequel to the treasured Beetlejuice?
Adaptions have always been at the heart of Tim Burton’s body of work. Having worked as an apprentice animator for Disney, it makes sense that he has a close affinity with some of the studio’s most significant animated classics. And whether you enjoy his adaptions or not, Burton makes them his. He reanimates forgotten films with enough personality to make them both his story and an ode to the classic.
The problems arise in these adaptions when this balance tilts. The same originality in approach that critics lauded in James and the Giant Peach was detrimental to Alice in Wonderland, those longing for the original story left betrayed by Burton’s amalgamation. Later works like Dark Shadows seemed to ignore the balance all together, and forgo the few quirks that had made the original worth adapting in the first place.
Critics have started to doubt Burton. The epitaph for the influential director seems to already be written, with the films he created through the 80’s and 90’s shadowing any new work he attaches his name to. Glimpses of distinct Burton in his past two original works have given the rest of us hope, but Dumbo will be decisive for any prospects of us getting a sequel to Beetlejuice, or at least telling as to whether we’d really even want one.
The original story follows the tale of Dumbo the hard-done by elephant, struggling to enjoy his role in the circus until he discovers he has the talent to fly. On the tail of a string of successful Disney live-action adaptions, Dumbo has every chance to be a box-office success. Whether it will be a good film is another question, but the narrative works in Burton’s favour, as it is after all a story about an outsider and the quirks of a 1940’s circus could only facilitate the director’s eccentricities.
The trailer already promises the low-lit, monochrome Burton aesthetic and his reuniting with Michael Keaton and the casting of Colin Farrell, Danny Devito and Eva Green leaves those rooting for his return with a sense of hope. But good actors aren’t always the lifeboats they purport, and just as in Batman Forever, Alice in Wonderland and Planet of the Apes, they can just as often be a dead weight in the sinking ship.
If there was one comment to be made on Dumbo’s 80-second trailer that dropped last week, it’s that the film looks uplifting. Burton seems to be back in a natural environment and backed by the support of an all-star cast. Those fans of what Burton once was can only hope he’s marked Dumbo for his triumphant return to form and that his originality does not exceed the few things that made Dumbo a story worth retelling in the first place. As for now, the future of Beetlejuice 2 hangs in the balance.