I think the problem with Tim Burton’s recent output is that he lost touch with his sense of whimsy but refuses to stop using it. Whimsy used to be all he had, something imbued with real heart and wonderment, because he has never been a good storyteller. Without his greatest strength to carry him he has produced very little of note for some time.
His last major release, Alice in Wonderland, was an ugly, mean and joyless experience. It’s no surprise that they refer to the titular world as “Underland” and not “Wonderland”, because there’s not a scrap of it to be found. It’s truly horrible, and worst of all empty-headed, treatment of a beloved classic. That snideness, masquerading as quirk, worked quite well in his adaptation of Sweeney Todd (though the largely terrible singing sunk it) but mostly it just feels like the work of a man who simply does not care.
The most sincere Burton has been in recent memory was with Big Fish, where the most emotionally honest and affecting work came in the scenes of subdued reality, but even the more fantastical imagery was rooted in recognisably human trappings. All his weirdness and over-reliance on production design was stripped away and it’s also the only time where his relentless “daddy issues” worked, because it felt like he was working through something profound on screen. Unfortunately those issues resurfaced time and time again, so it renders all that emotional exploration moot.
It seems that when Tim Burton really cares about the material he is working with (Ed Wood, Big Fish), he reins it in. He doesn’t feel the need to try so hard. When he doesn’t care about the material, he throws all of his attention into the production design and we are left to sift through an overly stylised, empty, incoherent mess.
It is clear that Burton loves Dark Shadows, the scenes set in 1970s Maine are incredibly restrained, save for an elaborate wig or two, and the gothic opening sequence is very light on design but high on mood. The supporting cast are understated, although this is often a symptom of an unfocused script, but everyone plays it straight.
Even Depp, who Burton often has trouble pulling back, keeps things a few decibels lower than usual and settles on one accent (instead of the dozen or so he inflicted on The Mad hatter). Depp’s vocal work may be restrained but his physical performance is amplified, playing up the other-worldly nature of Barnabus Collins. His best work comes from his expressive features and theatrical physicality; if Depp had lived in the Silent-era I suspect he would have been… well… the Johnny Depp of his time.
Eva Green also gets a lot of attention as the wicked witch, Angelique, in one of the few roles where a character gets to really enjoy themselves. The rest of the supporting cast are decent but, again, underserved by Seth Grahame-Smith’s screenplay.
The first two-thirds of Dark Shadows were serviceable Tim Burton, far from his glory days but with just enough distance from his worst to make it a passable distraction. However, Burton’s storytelling is still terrible; scenes simply collide into each other with no sense of rhythm and the disservice done to every character, other than Barnabus & Angelique, causes problems later on. For a movie based on a soap opera, a format reliant on ensemble casting, Burton’s adaptation feels very much like a two horse race. This lack of shading on the supporting roles leads to third act (particularly the action-heavy finale) filled with rushed plot points and botched emotional beats. It takes something that felt “OK” and turns it into a mess.
I could not tell you if Dark Shadows is the big screen revival that the fans deserve but it was far from the shtick-laden disaster I was expecting from Burton. The affection is clear to see, it’s just not supported by a particularly good screenplay. It’s a promising start, seeing Burton start to juggle his best and worst instincts, but it’s not quite enough to bring him back to his Ed Wood days. Let’s hope Frankenweenie changes that.