Tim Burton was once haled as one of the most creative and unique filmmakers in the business, films like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands created a fascinating visual signature that solidly connected with fans. Even his take on Batman was fantastical and crowd-pleasing. Jump ahead to 2012 and the perception of Burton as a director is vastly different. After a string of films that began life as someone else’s property and all seemed to play to a very specific skill set, not to mention repetitive (nearly obsessive) collaborations with the same actor, the public opinion of Burton has greatly soured.
Burton’s cinematic adaptation of the campy 60s television series Dark Shadows just hit theaters. Once again, he’s adapting someone else’s material and once again his lead actor is Johnny Depp; this marking their eighth collaboration. Putting it kindly, Dark Shadows has issues, but as many times as I’ve been burned by the Burton reboot machine, I’m not yet ready to give up on the guy. However, as I flipped through Netflix’s Watch Instantly the other night, I noticed Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family was available. That got me thinking about the brief period in which the internet was abuzz at the rumor that Burton might be remaking the film. While this project has gone underground, and despite my not wishing to pile on the Burton hate bandwagon, recent viewings of both Dark Shadows and The Addams Family have provided clear evidence that Tim is not the right guy to reboot the film version of TV’s creepiest, spookiest, ookiest family.
For the record, I’m in no way arguing that Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family is a perfect film, nor even that a reboot shouldn’t happen. But it did right by those characters and created something wholly enjoyable. And on the surface, it’s easy to see why this would be a project that would attract Tim Burton. It’s fringe horror that playfully courts darkness without ever running the risk of an R-rating. It’s also another opportunity for Burton to play in someone else’s sandbox and therefore saves him the trouble, yet again, of writing original material. I’d also be willing to bet sandworms to scissorhands that he’d cast Johnny Depp to take over the lead role of Gomez Addams for the late Raul Julia. Danny Elfman would do the score, and the production design would be starkly, but comically gothic. Indeed at one point, Burton was set to direct the 1991 film before it ultimately fell to Sonnenfeld so the attraction was there from the start.
So if The Addams Family is a film ripe for a Burton reboot, why shouldn’t he direct it? In my opinion, Burton took a run at directing The Addams Family with Dark Shadows. He brought to the screen an oddball family with supernatural relatives and whacked out, live-in help all residing under the roof of a goth-style mansion. The problem with Dark Shadows, and what would inevitably hinder him with The Addams Family, is that the characters are really just sight gags. They are there to reaffirm the aesthetic and era in which he is working with no additional thought put into their construction. Barnabas Collins is a broad-stroke, repetitive joke while the rest of the family might as well have been disco balls or pet rocks of various shapes. The Addams Family thrives on its weird characters who are also wonderful and loveable, and that is not a strength we’ve sadly seen in Burton in many moons.
The other potential issue I see in a Burton Addams Family reboot is that the guy isn’t funny anymore. I remember the first time I saw Ed Wood and it astounded me how Burton was able to take such a sad, pitiful story and turn it into something poignant, but still hilarious. Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice is another example of Tim Burton comedy that works. Dark Shadows on the other hand, as the most recent dull thud in a volley misfires, casts serious doubt on Burton’s ability to tell even the simplest joke. Much like in his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the humor in Dark Shadows is a series of poorly conceived punch lines that, while probably sounding humorous on the page, hang embarrassingly in the air when uttered by his actors. The thing is, if The Addams Family isn’t funny, it just plain fails. It becomes a bad cover of “The Monster Mash” that wears out its welcome by the second refrain.
Finally, and most troublingly for his ability to direct anything in the future, Tim Burton desperately needs an editor. Obviously I’m not suggesting that no one was hired to edit Dark Shadows, or before that the abysmal Alice in Wonderland. However, it’s clear Burton is no longer subject to an editor’s influence. In Dark Shadows, there are entire character revelations thrown in that are entirely unnecessary and end up needing additional, shoehorned lines of dialogue to explain as they aren’t organically bred of the narrative. These revelations end up going nowhere and only seem to exist to give us something else to look at. Tim, if you’d rather be a production designer instead of a director, we’d all support that decision. Until then, let someone else have a say over what should or should not be cut. I shutter to think of the new and innovative ways one could discover to make The Addams Family into a tiresome chore if the pacing isn’t tight.
My intention here is not to hate on Burton, but rather point out why this project would only progress him further down the unfortunate path (read: rut) on (in) which he currently finds himself. And while The Addams Family reboot is, for the time being, dead and buried, we’ve seen dead, ill-advised projects resurrected in the past.