Beetlejuice, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

WARNING: Massive spoilers.

I rented these three movies to study their approaches to production design, but ended up watching them for a completely different reason.

All three are, of course, Tim Burton movies. And all Tim Burton movies are about a collision between the “real world” and an irrational individual, whether that individual is Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington or Tim Roth’s character in Planet of the Apes.

I started with Charlie then worked my way backwards, for no particular reason.

I had no trouble recognizing Willy Wonka as the typical Tim Burton protagonist, the artist who cannot live alongside society. He builds himself a world of his imagination, shuts out the “real world” and eventually loses himself inside his creation. He is saved by the intervention of a child who shares his passion and reconnects him with society, but on their own terms. At the end of Charlie, pointedly, Charlie’s family and their house has been moved inside the chocolate factory. Willy Wonka has not, after all, rejoined society; rather, he has brought a family into his own demented reality.

Charlie is, of course, most handsomely designed, but then I wonder. The design of Batman was, in 1989, such an all-encompassing, overwhelming shock that it pushed aside a number of narrative problems that the movie has. I wonder if, fifteen years from now, Charlie will look like Batman looks today.

Because Batman looks, well, it doesn’t bad, but it does look really dated and really, really cheap.

Ridley Scott mentions that he had it rain all the time in Blade Runner to disguise the fact that all his streets were backlot constructions. Tim Burton didn’t take his thinking that far, or else he wanted to emphasize his sets’ artificiality, because boy they look artificial. What in 1989 seemed like a design triumph now looks cramped, overstuffed, cheap and fake. The extensive miniature work looks obvious, mismatched and awkward, Jack Nicholson’s makeup looks crude and unforgiving.

By the standards of today’s superhero movies, the plot makes very little sense. The Joker has no plan, he just tries a bunch of stuff. Batman almost kills him, so he decides to poison Gotham City. He falls passionately in love with Vicki Vale for no particular reason, then destroys some art, then stages a parade, where he plans to gas thousands.

Beloved characters with fifty years of history behind them, like Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, are turned into stock Hollywood types with no affinity for the originals, while ciphers like Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale and Bob the Goon are given major screen time. (I have never read an issue of Batman with any of these characters in them.) By the standards of something like X-Men or Batman Begins or Spider-Man or Sin City, there is very little respect for the source material at all.

But as a Tim Burton movie, Batman works reasonably well. The design is extensive, but doesn’t look particularly Burtonesque by today’s standards. Batman looks nothing like Corpse Bride or Sleepy Hollow or even Batman Returns.

So I watched Batman feeling a little disappointed, but then I watched Beetlejuice and it all fell into place.

Beetlejuice, aside from being the comedy version of The Others, is, amazingly, almost the same movie as Batman. The title character is, essentially, the exact same character as The Joker, with the same sense of humor, the same unbridled lust and even a similar makeup job. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis have to rid their house of Beetlejuice just as Batman has to rid Gotham City of The Joker. Burton even cast Michael Keaton in both films, and it’s as if Batman and the Joker are really just two sides of the same personality. Bruce Wayne is also Batman, and is also the Joker. Bruce Wayne can’t deal with society and so becomes Batman, but his anger and self-loathing surfaces as the Joker and his nonsensical destruction.

There! If that’s not dimestore Freudianism, I don’t know what is. Excuse me, I’m going to go smoke a cigar while driving a train through a tunnel now.

Beetlejuice and the Joker (and, I realize now) Willy Wonka are all irrational creatures. (There’s at least one of these characters in every Tim Burton movie, but these are the three I watched today.)

Joker’s plans may be scattershot but Beetlejuice’s makes no sense whatsoever. Beetlejuice wants to get out of some kind of purgatory (represented by Alec Baldwin’s tabletop town model). It is explained that he can only get out if you say his name three times. Then it turns out he’s able to get out anyway. Then it’s revealed that he can only get out if he marries a living person, so he decides to force marriage upon Winona Ryder. Similarly, love seems almost beside the point to Batman/Joker’s plans, and positively repellant to Willy Wonka.

These movies are all about the irrational. When people ask Willy Wonka about his absurd creations, he responds as if he doesn’t quite understand them himself, as if he’s as amazed as you are at their existence (either that or he responds as if they are the most rational things in the world and you are an idiot for questioning him). Wonka’s creations (in Burton’s movie anyway, it’s been a while since I read the book) don’t make any sense, they simply are. As Charlie says in the movie (I’m paraphrasing) “It doesn’t have to make sense, that’s why it’s candy.”
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5 Responses to “Beetlejuice, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
  1. Tangent, of sorts: Beetlejuice animated series eps now online

    It’s legal, too, so prepare to sit through ads.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Tangent, of sorts: Beetlejuice animated series eps now online

      I thought about the cartoons while watching the movie, which is another instance of Hollywood making a movie for grownups that unexpectedly gains a primary audience of children. Beetlejuice, while clearly a sex maniac of the Groucho Marx variety, is still a rough customer who is happy to live in a whorehouse and says things like “Nice fuckin’ house!” I never saw any of the cartoons, so I don’t know how they domesticated the character.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Tangent, of sorts: Beetlejuice animated series eps now online

        Now’s your chance.

      • rennameeks says:

        Re: Tangent, of sorts: Beetlejuice animated series eps now online

        The whole sexual angle was completely removed in favor of Beetlejuice reveling in all things gross and disgusting (which also appeals to kids).

  2. craigjclark says:

    “It doesn’t have to make sense, that’s why it’s [eye]candy.”

    I read a review of a Tim Burton film that described his fans as the most forgiving in the world since they’ll sit through the most incomprehensible plots to get to the two or three really amazing images and set pieces in each of his films. I can’t say I agree with that assessment 100% (because there was nothing really amazing about Planet of the Apes other than how much it sucked), but when you’re dealing with a film like Beetlejuice, things like story and character development are pretty much beside the point.

    When he has a great script to work with, though (say, in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Big Fish), watch out.