They say, whoever they may be, that when you find something you are good at, you should stick with it, and that is exactly what Tim Burton has been doing lo these twenty years or so. Honing his Charles Addams-esque wit into an array of outré-sharpened, and all-together ooky, mise-en-scène cartoons - both animated and live-action - from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands to his version of Gotham City through The Nightmare Before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow and Corpse Bride, right on through to his latest opus of succulent Grand Guignol decadence - a decadence that Burton (along with six-time collaborator Johnny Depp) has made his very own, replete with the snarkiest of blood-giddy grins.
The story (based on fact some say, legend others) of a man wrongly accused and sent to a penal colony for fifteen years, only to have the man who framed him, rape his wife and steal his daughter, now returning to seek his razor-edged revenge, full of ghastly delight and cannibalistic exuberance, has been called both Dickensian and Brechtian (apt descriptives each) yet now, with Burton's quite sincerely manicured adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical smash hit about "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street", one could ostensibly add the term Burtonian to the aforementioned terms of merit. More Edward Gorey than Alfred Hitchcock, Burton may very well be the perfect filmmaker for such a gaily gruesome job.
Opening with a credit oozing CGI nightmare factory of a bleak smog-filled, vermin-defiled London, all soaked in near neon colored blood, Burton immediately - without even a chance to allow anyone to back out - places you right smack dab in the middle of his world. Tim Burton's world. A world that may seem quite vile to many an uninitiated lost traveler, but a world that is very much a delightful grotesquery of twisted psychosis for Herr Burton and his ilk, here (once again) including perrenial playmate Depp and his own licentious missus, Helena Bonham Carter, playing the deliciously demented frau to both Burton and Depp's queer-eyed mad scientists. Obsessed with the visualness of his films more than just about any other director working today, he is probably the most dedicated filmmaker to the expressiveness of cinema since the 1920's hey day of German Expressionism and the likes of Murnau, Weine, Pabst and Lang - all of whom Burton is heir apparent to. The world of Caligari and Nosferatu and Dr. Mabuse is also the world of Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington and now Sweeney Todd.
Many a criticism has been lobbed at Burton and his filmmaking style in the past for being all flash over substance, and that is indeed the case in many of his films (sometimes beautifully so) - and it is no different here (at least to a point) - but then again, let us not forget, "l'art pour l'art" - "Art for Art's sake" - and remember that art needs no justification other than being art. One could also say that here is Johnny Depp again, being Johnny Depp (again), but who other than Depp could play this role with such a gleeful glint in his ever-winking eye and such a shameless smile upon his ever-nodding psychotically perverse pretty boy face? Burton and Depp both take us deep into the gothic grist of this Three-Penny Opera inspired tale of madness and meat pies - and we go along happily, without a seeming care in the world.
In the end, what we get, after a string of semi-successful failures (the overly sentimental Big Fish, the overly foppish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the overly accessorized Planet of the Apes remake - only Corpse Bride managed to keep in touch with Burton's aforementioned world during this period), is, though falling a bit short of great, Burton's most exhilarating - and complete - work since his woozy ode to Z-movie making in Ed Wood, proving once again that he is the most uniquely inventive, if not the most wildly insular, auteur working in cinema today. Sure, it may be quite morbid, and ultimately it is a very sad tale, and quite repetitious throughout, but in Burton's hands, and in Burton's world, we are sure to have a blood-spurting gay old time. [12/21/07]