I can’t tell you how many times over the last 17 years I have been very pleased to see an incredibly cool trailer for a movie only to have my expectations shattered to see Tim Burton’s name attached to the film. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Tim Burton. He has been responsible for some movies I love, but I generally consider his involvement in a film as a curse rather than a benefit. I can pinpoint the exact day I came to this decision on Tim Burton. It was the evening of June 19, 1992. I left Batman returns consciously thinking “wow, that movie was 99% style, and whatever the other 1% was, it certainly wasn’t substance.” And it formed my impression of Tim Burton’s general record as a filmmaker, and it’s a record that he tends to live up to more often than not. Don’t get me wrong, I got some entertainment value from several of his films, even some he directed. But even the movies I really enjoyed liked Edward Scissorhands, struggled mightily to give me something that overshadowed the “vision” and gave me something significant.
Now you don’t have to tell me that Tim Burton loves to shoot his name on every project he happens to catch out of his corner. I loved Nightmare before Christmas and I’ve heard plenty of moans that he basically had a two-piece concept developed and made by others, but it was still Tim Burton’s dark vision trying to push the heart-warming story in the middle of the undermining world. I can hear all of you Burton lovers screaming “you just don’t understand, man.” I understand. He loves a flick. I can understand his fans’ appreciation for his work, but just because something has a visual style and atmosphere that is expertly done doesn’t mean there’s something that isn’t.
So I admit that Burton, after bringing two incredibly happy movie experiences to me in the ’80s –Beetlejuice and Batman– could stain me for the next 17 years over an incredibly acidic, basically, Batman Returns. Let me say that every time I encounter a huge Batman returns follower, they inevitably a Tim Burton fan as opposed to a Batman or cartoon fan. I remember the first thing Batman returns argument I had in 1992 with a college student and colleague. I thought he was totally crazy. I heard the argument about the expansion of the incredible vision of Gotham City he had begun to build in the first. The anxiety … blah blah blah. That to me was the problem. I need a story in there. I could even accept the movie as it is, but it still doesn’t change the fact that you can pretty much take the character of Batman out of it Batman returns and it suffers nothing. He really has little impact on the story or the plot. In fact, Michael Keaton even disappears for a third of the movie. The movie even dropped like a psychological drama about two people’s neurosis.
Okay, I’ll probably talk about that 9. Yes, I was immediately disappointed when I saw Burton’s name pushed in the middle of half a dozen other producers. But the movie looked so cool in trailers. It’s probably the first Tim Burton-affiliated project I really wanted to see in a dozen years. So I gave it a try.
At first, even in a week night jaunt, I got a bad “word of mouth” feeling 9 go into the cinema. The first trailer had just started and there was no one in the theater. For the recording, this is the first time I am entering a theater after the lights were dim to see no one else in there since a late, late weekday show of the excellent and under-appreciated Quick change with Bill Murray, Gina Davis and Randy Quaid in 1990. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a brilliant piece of work, devastatingly fun – Netflix it at all speeds if you haven’t seen it.
In any case, this one was at. 19.20 9 empty. Eventually, there was an additional pattern that came in after the actual movie started, but it was not a sufficient audience to prevent me from putting all the armrests and laying across the seats and passing gas without apology during the film. So what about 9? It was visually brilliant, striking and beautiful. The performances were excellent from Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau and Christopher Plummer – basically excellent everywhere. And the story, what little of it is, was acceptable. However, this short film spends the first hour of its 80 minutes of driving time bending into a hazy, esoteric world with almost no relatable frame of reference for the viewer. In my opinion, Tim Burton classics the bad way. The problem really begins for me with the lack of a solid foundation in either pure imagination or any relatable reality.
Let’s compare it to a “Tim Burton” movie that I loved, Nightmare before Christmas. Nightmare immediately established itself as fantasy and established rules and guidelines for its fantasy world right out of the gate. I was on board and I rolled with it from the enchanting story all the way through the unique music. So 9 begins to give us a brief background on the fictional world where a militaristic society in the 1940s reminiscent of Nazi Germany creates a Steampunkish version of Skynet from the Terminator series. Man makes machines. Machines take their own lives. Machines destroy humanity. I can roll with it. In fact, I’m totally out of it. Okay, what’s left? Well there are 9 dolls left. Make it into 8 dolls and an Oogie Boogie doll ala Nightmare Before Christmas, only this time with half a pair of scissors tied to a rusty nail. What are these dolls? Why are they? Do we need to know? Well.
I tried. I was really trying to roll with it. Puppets have a kind of life. Are there machines? They seemed to be threatened by the machines left, so it’s hard to determine. Why do they have lives? They really seem to be more ragdoll than mechanics. Why does my old, uncreative mind have trouble accepting this, because it is? It’s a bunch of puppets fighting a bunch of hybrid machines, one of which looks suspiciously like it was constructed by the evil Sid from Toy Story.
The problem is, the story continues to force us back to hints that what matters is the purpose and origin of these puppets, so you are not allowed to enjoy it for what it is. It is caught in this twilight between fantasy and technological speculation and it never lets you go too far in any way. It never allows you to buy 100% for any of the visions of the story and after 45 minutes, even if the character of 9 was charming and sympathetic, I didn’t start giving a flying flip, whether the mechanical dogs and pterodactyls sucked the mysterious vigor out of these dolls or not. I just wanted the story to go somewhere. Admittedly, it does so quickly in the short and rushed third act, where suddenly all these technological pieces and symbols suddenly become very important, even if the final credits roll without sufficiently explaining some of it. It’s a big slap in the face of the audience. Just accept that this piece of metal does this and means this, and this thing does this as it sits there, and the cold, heartless, soulless machines have some inexplicable ability or need to suck souls out of these cloth dolls.
Better yet, let’s turn it all into a cross between a ghost story and fundamentalist religious history to wrap it all up. So basically, we have a cheesy 1940s post-apocalyptic cross between Raggedy-Ann, Christian Mythology and the end of Return of the Jedi. I’d say it’s all kind of a big mish-mess mess, unless there aren’t even really enough material pieces of history to make it too big of a mess. It’s not terrible, but it’s not very good. It is moderately entertaining and infinitely unsatisfying, made only bearable by a stunning visual style, entertaining performances and a few nifty sequences that lead to a conclusion that will make even the most spiritual and woo strikes of us cringe with embarrassment at the cheese. -Factor. Hey, it’s classic Tim Burton.
That’s the end of my review, but for the record, I loved Ed Wood. Probably Burton’s best since the ’80s, and Michael Keaton is still in hand down the best screen Batman (not to mention the unique Beetle Juice).