Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Best of Depp + Burton

With eight collaborations under their collective belt, Johnny Depp & Tim Burton are one of cinema's most lucrative & stylistically successful actor-director pairings. Depp is an actor who so easily understands & communicates Burton's particular creative sensibilities & Burton is a director who always provides Depp with both opportunity & creative freedom to create a wide array of left-field characters. In honour of their upcoming Dark Shadows, let's look back at their best work together:

1. Edward Scissorhands
An artistic breakthrough for both star & director & the start a beautiful pairing. Burton's distinct visuals tell an effective modern fantasy. Disbelief is gladly suspended in order to share the quiet emotions of Edward's world. Depp makes a leap from bit parts & 21 Jump Street & introduces the eccentric sensibility that would ultimately bring him fame. Underappreciated at the time (nearly everyone but Depp got nominated by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror), Depp's performance is a master class in silent film acting & iconic in & beyond the goth community. With Bo Welch's incredible sets, Colleen Atwood's iconic costumes & Danny Elfman's soaring, magical score on display, it's amazing that Stan Winston's (admittedly stand out) make-up was the only thing recognised by the Oscars.  

2. Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 
 Seventeen years after Scissorhands, another blade wielding, pale faced outcast yielded the first & - to date - only Oscar nominated performance for a Depp / Burton collaboration. Far darker than any of their previous collaborations, Sweeny Todd is a very tricky proposition: a musical horror, with lines blurred between cringing, laughing & sing-along. It is to Depp's credit that he gets inside Todd's skin & maintains the emotion behind the singing & killing, but it is to Burton's considerable credit that he holds it all together. This time, the exceptional technical team was recognised alongside Depp, but Burton regrettably not.

3. Ed Wood
Another Ed is at the center of the pair's second collaboration, a strange & heartfelt biopic of the infamous & probably unfairly maligned "worst director of all time". Filled with eccentricities & style that celebrate its subject, Ed Wood is one of Burton's more serious (yet also sublimely silly) films. Depp's performance keeps things broad & light & unpredictable - never trying to explain or make fun of the man, but simply enjoying inhabiting his strange skin & world.

4. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
To reinvent a character already successfully brought to life by Gene Wilder, Depp takes a number of deliberate left turns (in his own words) & churns out a true oddball - an un-apologetically antisocial, creepy perfectionist with daddy issues & a bit of a vindictive streak. His Willy Wonka bears an eery resemblance to the ultimate eternal man-child himself: Michael Jackson & makes up in enticing unpredictability what he lacks in warm charisma. From Burton's side, the Chocolate Factory is hardly a stretch, but it is joyous eye candy of the highest order & still a film with Burton's distinctive fingerprint all over it.

5. Sleepy Hollow
It has a good story, but Burton's Sleepy Hollow is all about the evocative style & rich atmosphere. A gloomy retelling of the tale of headless horseman, with incredible sets & gorgeous cinematography doubling for Washington Irving's prose. Depp's Ichabod Crane is a predictably offbeat take on the classic literary investigator. Never one to take his character too seriously, his Ichabod is a decidedly reluctant hero; an often terrified & cowardly academic more interested in science than people. A stern, serious character played for well judged comic effect in a merrily gothic tale.

6. Corpse Bride
Who better than Depp to voice the shy, sensitive hero of Burton's first animation outing as Director (after producing the hugely influential & extremely Burton-esque The Nightmare Before Christmas for Henry Selick)? The story is slight but sweet, the animation is legendary & the voice actors do uniformly excellent work.   

7. Alice in Wonderland
With Depp beneath the cap, Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter was understandably promoted to lead character, but while Depp & Burton promised a truly mentally damaged Hatter, they delivered a brightly coloured, giddy cartoon. Depp's hatter is larger than life, entertaining & sweetly damaged, but ultimately more of an idea than an actual creation and, personally, the weakest of the pair's collaborations. Burton's film, meanwhile, is a technical & visual wonder, but quickly digested popcorn fare, story-wise.