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Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.

Can we all agree that Tim Burton is, for all his box-office brawn these days, pretty much dunzo as a creative force?

Let's ignore the fact that he's dipping into his own past for his next film, Frankenweenie. Remaking a short film from your early days sounds to me like an indication, if not quite a proof, of a declining creative spark. The artist's equivalent of looking up old girlfriends on Facebook. "Oh, hey, this little story was really beautiful. Man, we had some good times. We should totally get back in touch, see what happens." Mm-hm.

(Sure, he'll gussy it up with some talk about how the technology has advanced right along with his budgetary allowance, and so now he'lll be able to realize his vision the way he'd always intended. But that's what George Lucas said before he started tinkering with Star Wars, and look where that got us.)

No, let's focus instead on his recent finished work. Dark Shadows continued Burton's streak of tone-deaf treatments of other peoples' material, a streak that began with Sleepy Hollow before lurching into Planet of the Apes, tripping its way through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then burbling into Alice in Wonderland - that unholy union of Burton's registered-trademark whimsy and standard grrrl-power actioner that made him a box office king.

'Twas not always thus, you know. Look at Burton's early run as a director: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and, skipping ahead a bit, his masterpiece, Ed Wood. Those five films make for an astonishingly assured entrance onto the cinematic stage, eh wot? And what a climax with Wood, a heartfelt meditation on the artistic spark. When Orson Welles tells the hopeless, dolled-up Wood that "visions are worth fighting for," how can your heart not thrill and break at the same time?

And then Mars Attacks! Ha, ha? A campy homage to '50s alien invasion pics, I guess? Nothing gold can stay, Ponyboy. Big Fish wasn't bad, and I confess I didn't pay much attention to Corpse Bride. But by the time Alice came along, was there anybody who still imagined Burton was fighting for a vision, as opposed to renting it out? Oh, and look, now he's producing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Like Mars Attacks!, it's a lookback film, one that reminds him of things he saw long ago.

I learned that from this interview at Collider. But I learned something else as well, something much more important. Tim Burton looks more than a little bit like Steve Carell, current king of sad-sack comedy:


Just imagine it: Carell starring in Tim Burton, a film about the creative spark every bit as tragic as Burton's own Ed Wood. It could open present-day, Burton as Charles Foster Kane, a man who got everything he wanted but lost something precious along the way. Who spends his days looking back, looking to recapture the thing he had when he made Ed Wood. The studio could be pressing him to bring his Burton-y touch to bear on, I dunno, Captain Underpants or some such. Look, we let you make Frankenweenie. You've played in the sandbox of your childhood dreams long enough. Time to pack the multiplex, Timmy. He's a commodity, a brand. He wants to be an artist. Heartbreaking. Carell could absolutely put that across.

All that remains is to figure out which director will play Orson Welles to Burton's Ed Wood. Maybe David Lynch? Terrence Malick?

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Scott Marks June 22, 2012 @ 4:13 p.m.

I was so bored during "Seeking a Friend..." that I spent a good portion of the time trying to nail just who Carell looked like. Thanks for cementing that black hole.


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