Special to MSN Movies

Once upon a time, in sunny California, in a village called Burbank, a mommy and daddy found themselves the puzzled parents of a very strange little boy. Round-headed, pale, with black hair that frizzed outward as though electrified, their uncanny child surveyed the world from hollow, not entirely human eyes. Could their Timothy be a changeling? A freak of nature?
They'd heard of other parents cursed with infants so "different" that the traumatized couples had been driven to abandon the little mutants at the Burbank Home for Unusual Cases. But Mr. and Mrs. Burton took another tack: they boarded up the windows of Tim's bedroom, leaving their unnatural son alone to stare endlessly into a magic box, with only his beloved dog Sparky for company.
Not the least bit depressed, Tim amused himself by shaping bats and cats and skeletons and fork-tailed devils with his hands, weird and wonderful shadows dancing all over his bedroom wall.
Sometimes he would dream of looming towers and dark caves where not-so-nice daddies and mommies lived. Other times he daydreamed dreadfully beautiful worlds where he was king, surrounded by a loving family and admiring courtiers. And each courtier was as "different" as those bizarre babies that had so frightened his parents, as fantastic as the creatures he marveled at in his magic box: human wolves and bats, corpses that walked and bug-eyed visitors from outer space.
And in his delicious loneliness, Tim smiled to think of all the grown-ups afraid of the dark, where dreams and nightmares, heaven and hell, Christmas and Halloween, kept such fruitful company.
Vowing to keep childhood's door forever ajar, he decided to become a great inventor. Inside his magical factory, aided by gifted friends, Tim would animate gods and monsters to populate all the fabulous nighttime worlds he could imagine—not just for magic boxes but for whole walls of moving pictures. And that's just what the strange little boy from Burbank did.

In this live-action short, young Vincent Frankenstein, already a budding filmmaker (his home movie is titled "Monsters from Long Ago"), digs up and reanimates his dead dog Sparky. Vincent's nocturnal ascents to the pet cemetery, his attic laboratory and the blazing miniature-golf-course windmill—where an angry mob corners the boy and his creepy canine—are wildly stylized projections of psychic shadows and storms. They are the voluptuous Expressionism of James Whale's Frankenstein in sunny suburbia. An "artist" who brings dead things—not just Sparky but his whole community—back to life, Vincent shares DNA with laterBurton alter egos Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Willy Wonka.

Pee-Wee Herman's Playhouse—with its Rube Goldberg breakfast-making contraptions and bright-colored clutter—is magical yet claustrophobic artifice, like the crowded imagination of a child who lives entirely in his own head. Pee-Wee lives for his bright-red, lion-headed bike, stolen by another self-absorbed kid in a grown-up body. In Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, tripping throughBurton's surrealAmerica, Pee-Wee gets outside himself, bumping into oddballs galore and fast-forwarding through a slew of movie worlds, courtesy of a Hollywood studio. By abandoning his just-reclaimed bicycle to rescue flesh-and-blood beasties (even the snakes!) trapped in a pet-store fire, Pee-Wee signals he's grown beyond his womblike Playhouse. It's an outdoor theater that premieres his "big adventure" movie, enthusiastically attended by the extended family of kooks he's acquired in his travels.Burton's Huckleberry Finn isn't any less a mad-hatter at journey's end, but he's far from a party of one. (Burton, too, found a friend for life: Danny Elfman, whose mad music plays in the director's every film.)

In Beetlejuice, within a Norman Rockwell country house, Burton stages a darkly hilarious fable about the power of the imagination to raise hell—or a screwed-up kid. Up in the attic, a pair of newly deceased L.L. Bean types (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) hang out, doing their damnedest to haunt the obnoxious new owners (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara) out of their "heavenly" home. Downstairs, busy tricking up plain-Jane decor into a hellish Salvador Dali cave, the Manhattan headcases hardly register their Goth daughter's (Winona Ryder) slow fade to black. Meanwhile, six feet under, in Muzak'd waiting rooms, the dead decay in bureaucratic boredom while libidinous ghoul Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) busts out to mount horror extravaganzas. All hell must break loose before the quick and the dead, bad artists and squares, are reconciled and a "family" can be pieced together to parent a misfit teen back to life.

Edward Scissorhands,Burton's masterpiece, is a Frankenstein fairy tale about black arts and pastel philistines. In Johnny Depp the director found his perfect mirror. Depp plays a sweet, "invented" boychild whose gifts are first admired and exploited, then feared by the masses. His first poignant words to the mom (Dianne Wiest) who discovers him in Vincent Price's castle attic—"I'm not finished"—describe every human being's flawed, incomplete state. It's the itch that drives us to love and to embrace religion—and the sculptor or filmmaker to fashion shapes of clear-cut beauty and meaning. Edward writes his "Kilroy was here" in shrubbery, women's hairstyles, doggy trims—and most exquisitely, in ice sculptures that shed magical snow on the girl he loves (Winona Ryder). No "happily ever after" here: The "monster" who mirrors the best parts of us is stripped of family, cast out of community, but immortalized in ephemeral art and memory.

It's Christmas in Burton's Gotham ... so naturally Halloween's darkest souls come out to play: "hideous penguin boy" (Danny DeVito) is up from the sewer, trailing a posse of homicidal clowns; sexy Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is on the prowl; and a mensch (Michael Keaton) in a batsuit flickers through the city's dark canyons. The best moments in Batman Returns, a black-humored tale of murder and miscegenation, are perverse "love" scenes: Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle necking passionately on a big divan, each trying to hide his/her super-persona scars from the other (and don't we all?). "I would love to live with you in your castle just like in a fairy tale," Catwoman meows sadly, but lovers who have "difficulty with dualities" rarely live happily ever after in Burtonworld. Later, the besotted Penguin rolls lasciviously on his bed, threatening her black-cat familiar when Catwoman pops his canary into her mouth. Spitting out the birdie, she's all inhuman grace as she licks her arm to wipe her masked face clean. (Interspecies sex rears its exotic head again in Burton's Planet of the Apes, with adorable ape-girl crushin' on hunkish astronaut.)

Countering the super-syrupy confections usually served up as holiday movie fare, Burton draws a darkly delicious Halloween world ruled by an elegant dude named Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) in Nightmare Before Christmas. When the king of the dark side decides to kidnap "Sandy Claws" and annex his yuletide domain of giggles and gifts, all hell breaks loose. Like Edward Scissorhands, the Pumpkin King is an innocent transgressor, so the eruption of Walpurgisnacht into the sunny magic of Christmas morning both shocks and tickles us. When holiday order is restored, Jack and his sweet ragdoll girlfriend pose against a sky-filling Halloween moon. Dead they may be, but these lovers—unlike Scissorhands and his suburban princess, Batman and Catwoman—live happily ever after, just like in a fairy tale.

ED WOOD (1994)
"The worst filmmaker ever": Ed Wood's unquenchable optimism would find something positive even in that damning epitaph. In Ed Wood, playing the cross-dressing Fifties director who shot Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space, Johnny Depp seems to be rehearsing for Willy Wonka, projecting the wide eyes, fixed gaze and rictus smile one associates with those who don't get out of their hermetically sealed playhouses often enough. To buff up for the rigors of directing, Wood dons angora sweaters, high heels and platinum wig—a costume-change as casual as Bruce Wayne's suiting up to play Batman. Ed's fanboy rescue and re-animation of Bela Lugosi/Dracula (Martin Landau)—casting the horror has-been in his terrible movies—is an act of love, like Burton's celebrating Vincent Price in Vincent and Edward Scissorhands. Wood's childlike movie-lust turns him into an unlikely paterfamilias, heading a tribe of wonderful weirdos: TV horror-movie hostess Vampira, hulkish wrestler Tor Johnson, and no-talent psychic Criswell. Burton blesses his babe in toyland when Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) chats up Wood as a fellow artist, plagued by moneymen and indifferent audiences.

In Sleepy Hollow,Burton's version of Washington Irving's 18th-century American tale, schoolteacher Ichabod Crane metamorphoses into a literal-minded forensics detective (Johnny Depp) who pooh-poohs the existence of magic and the mysteries of the night. That all went underground when he witnessed his Puritan dad lock his bewitching Earth mother into an "iron maiden." (A Burton reversal: it's usually narrow-minded parents who write off deviant offspring.) But, like the village ofSleepy Hollow and even the young nation itself, Crane has buried the past at his peril. Bloodily reborn out of a hideously gnarled tree, the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken, with filed fangs) rises to punish the guilty, by means of gallop-by decapitations. When a hacked-off head rolls between the legs of unmanned, too-cerebral Crane, he goes therapeutically bonkers. Burton's beautifulHudson River Valley, bordered by a Dantean dark woods of the soul, glows with sumptuously stylized gloom. And Depp is very fine as a sexually and spiritually arrested boy who must make peace with complex dualities, dark demons and white witches.

Burton conceived this blackly funny and oddly disturbing six-episode black-and-white cartoon for Flinch, a Los Angeles animation and Web-media production studio. Available for viewing at AtomFilms.com, Stainboy stars an Edward Gorey munchkin who's such a spreading stain on his family's escutcheon, he's dumped in a home for freaks. (Is this a bed-wetter's nightmare?) Still, his fate's hardly as horrific as Burton's Oyster Boy (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories,Burton's collection of illustrated poems), whose impotent father swallows his freakish yet aphrodisiac son! No wonder Willy Wonka can hardly bring himself to spit out the word "parents." Stainboy sports string legs, a ball-shaped head adorned with three black hairs and guileless, saucer-shaped eyes—and wherever he stands, he leaks a messy splotch. Co-opted by a Fagin-like cop, this unlikely super-hero (clad in a stiff little cape with the initial S) is dispatched to kill criminal kids like Toxicboy and Staregirl. Typical ofBurton naifs, Stainboy's expression of lunatic innocence might be demonic or angelic, death mask or babyface. Whichever, this (dirty-)watercolorist is as passive as a puddle—nothing like cousin Jack Skellington or the husband-hungry "Corpse Bride."

Like Ichabod Crane, Willy Wonka's got a paternal skeleton in his closet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factorya dentist dad (Christopher Lee) who withholds sweets and locks up his son's face in a horrible brace. After his utopian chocolate factory is breached by recipe thieves, Willy (Johnny Depp) withdraws from human company into a paradisiacal plant painted in primary colors and operated by bizarre robotics and a Busby Berkeley band of Oompa-Loompas. Outside, Dickensian poverty rules, especially in Charlie Bucket's slantwise shack, though the Buckets feed on familial affection. Lonely, vindictive and a showoff, Willy invites five children into his edible, eye-candy world. But they're all selfish creeps, except for gravely sweet Charlie (Freddie Highmore), so their nutty host gleefully metes out appropriately nasty punishments. There's something oddly glazed aboutBurton's candymaker; his artificial cheer (like that of Pee-Wee and Ed Wood) seems manufactured out of some mantra audible only to him. It's blowback from primal trauma, the source of the productive nightmares that preoccupy Burton boys—and wellspring for this director's fabulously grim fairy tales.

Copyright © 2005 by Kathleen Murphy