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That old Tim Burton magic

By Breeanna Hare, Special to CNN
  • Filmmaker has had quiet rise to top, enthralling actors and audiences
  • Appeal lies in ability to mix whimsy with darkness and horror with humor
  • His vision is unique; he's become a brand unto himself
  • However, his critics say he sometimes sacrifices story for visual showmanship
  • Tim Burton
  • Movies
  • Entertainment

(CNN) -- "Alice in Wonderland" -- with its hat-wearing madmen, anxious rabbits and disturbing, smiling cats -- would seem to have filmmaker Tim Burton's name written all over it.

After all, since he started producing and directing films more than 20 years ago, Burton's name has become synonymous with everything wondrously strange.

Take the delightfully weird world of Roald Dahl's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" that Burton brought to the screen in 2005 (with, it must be noted, very mixed reviews). Or the extreme spirits of "Beetlejuice." Or the gleeful aliens of "Mars Attacks!"

While the reviews of "Alice" haven't been overwhelmingly positive, the expectations have been high.

"He's one of the few filmmakers left where his movie release is an event," said Kristian Fraga, filmmaker and author of "Tim Burton: Interviews."

Burton's rise is one that was largely quiet, Fraga said, but he's nonetheless made gothic part of the mainstream.

His style of film has slowly but surely became a part of our moviegoing consciousness, Fraga said. It's taken the 51-year-old from being an unhappy Disney animator in striped socks, drawing romantic couples being shot in the skull by Cupid, to an indisputable, and at times indefinable, brand unto himself.

"It's clear that he's a real visionary. He's one of the few directors out there that has a style that is unmistakably his own," Entertainment Weekly's Adam Markovitz said. "He's in a select group of directors that is his own brand. Burton is right up there with Hitchcock, the kind of director that is really identifiable in a single frame. You look at one frame, and you know who made it."

Burton's twist on what can be classified as frightening was culled from a steady diet of monster movies consumed when he was a kid growing up in Burbank, California.

"The word 'normal' always scared me, because that indicated something that was subversively terrifying," Burton said in the Museum of Modern Art's "Behind the Scenes" video for an exhibit displaying his art, most of which had never been seen before.

Those movies, "where the monster was the outcast and the people were the villainous element," were always important to him, Burton said.

On top of horror, he was a studious observer of humor, often clipping items from Mad magazine and creating his own jokes, said Ron Magliozzi, assistant curator of the Burton exhibit.

After wading through Burton's archives, Magliozzi had something of an epiphany about what makes Burton "a rock star" with the fan base to match.

"I went into it thinking of Tim as a dark, gothic artist, with these themes of dismemberment and the grotesque," Magliozzi said, "and I came out of it seeing him as something of an optimistic artist, and I think that's one of the keys to his popularity. He takes you to all these disturbing places, but there's always this note of optimism in it."

Indeed, though Burton has been associated with the frightful and the odd, there's a quiet, unsuspecting layer of whimsy and sentiment that, when combined with the headless monsters and stitched-together characters, appeals to the audience's desire to see human stories on screen.

"I was really taken as a kid with Burton's combination of horror, otherworldly and underworld sentiments with the real sense of whimsy," Variety film critic Justin Chang said. "Even when his movies aren't great, he offers this interesting combination of darkness and reassurance. It's a darkness that's made safe in a way."

As a result, Markovitz said, Burton now has a name that can draw crowds in the same way a movie star can.

In fact, he often draws in the movie stars themselves.

In 1991, a 19-year-old Winona Ryder, who worked with Burton on "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands," told Newsweek that she'd "do anything for Tim Burton," including bringing him water or being the coffee girl on one of his sets, just to be with him.

More than a decade later, another of Burton's actresses, Anne Hathaway, who plays the White Queen in Burton's "Alice," said nearly the same thing. As she told InStyle for its March issue, as soon as she heard Burton was leading the troops into "Underland," as it's called in the film, she had to find a way to get on board.

Fraga said part of that affection is because with Burton, "it's not about 'how do I look?' ... Michelle Pfeiffer [who played Catwoman in 'Batman Returns'] said at the time, 'there are not many directors I'm going to dress up like that and swallow a bird for.' You're talking about some of the best actors in the world who get to work with this guy, and part of the fun is trying to figure out how you're going to pull this movie off."

But Burton is not without his critics, with the chief complaint being that he's all show and no story.

"Burton's only as good as some of his material," Chang said. "He gets so into the world and so into creating this immersive environment that the story eludes him. When he finds the right material, yes, he's a sublime storyteller. But I don't think that happens with every film. More like every fourth or fifth."

For Chang, "Alice" is one of Burton's off moments.

" 'Alice' is not exactly a glowing addition to the canon (or, for that matter, a boon to the rediscovered art of 3D)," Chang added. "The film confirmed for me that Burton, while clearly adept at creating fantasy worlds, is only as strong as his material."

Still, though "there are definitely people who feel that his visual style can overwhelm the story," Markovitz said, "what he does have is a great knack for connecting with the weirdos and the anti-heroes."

He can take these outcasts and transform them into universally appealing characters, Markovitz said. And that, devotees observe, is the real wonder of Tim Burton.