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The Magic is Gone: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp Need to Divorce

Tim Burton Johnny Depp
Warner Bros.

Dark Shadows‘ hits theaters today, the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and versatile actor Johnny Depp. But with each passing year and each film the two make, this pairing has become painful to endure and it might be time for them to call their partnership quits.

Once upon a time there was a visionary director with quirky gothic sensibilities that echoed the sort of kitsch of ‘The Addams Family’ and the books of Edward Gorey. Tim Burton made films like ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,’ ‘Beetlejuice,’ and even brought a little strange to the world of ‘Batman.’ His films were filled with a darkly-tinged whimsy that played well to children and adults alike.

In 1990, Burton embarked on a decades long marriage to Johnny Depp, beginning with the fantastic ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ the story of a boy with scissors for hands who falls in love with a suburban girl. Depp played the titular role of Edward, and the film became a Burton classic, helping to cement his trademark aesthetic.

But it was more than just an aesthetic back then. There was a feeling you got when watching a Burton film, like being immersed in a dream — a world that was familiar, yet somehow foreign. It was still tangible enough to be our world, but re-imagined in ways that felt possible.

Burton followed up ‘Edward Scissorhands’ with ‘Batman Returns,’ arguably superior to his first ‘Batman’ film in that he distanced himself from the comic book aspects in favor of his own, much darker vision. The film still maintained a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, but his characters were more dimensional and everything from the costumes to the sets were more heavily skewed toward what we might consider “Burton-esque.”

His next film with Depp was ‘Ed Wood,’ in which Depp played the infamous director of terrible B-movies, and while it wasn’t a commercial success, the film found a following in the Burton devout. Depp was, again, perfect in the role, finding the humor and pathos in a real person many with whom many were unfamiliar.

1999′s ‘Sleepy Hollow’ was Burton and Depp’s last great collaboration. The coupling was still in its adolescence, and the two seemed to have solidified their working relationship. ‘Sleepy Hollow’ brought out everything Burton had to give — gorgeous, gothic aesthetics, an sweet and sort of spooky story, and a humorous, endearing lead in Depp’s Ichabod Crane.

Following ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ Burton’s ‘Big Fish’ (2003) is, undoubtedly, his last great work. It’s as if he emptied the rest of his heart into this beautiful, whimsical love story and then surrendered the remnants wholesale to a plastic factory. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ a story that seemed tailor-made for the likes of Burton, resulted in the first truly appalling collaboration between the director and Depp.

Where once was a beating heart that served as the engine for such creative output, now was a shiny, colorful veneer beneath which everything was hollow. His work is the live action equivalent of Robert Zemeckis’ animation — it’s pretty to look at, but when you stare into the eyes of the characters, there’s something… off. Simply put: it’s soulless.

Depp is arguably still one of our best working actors, and this isn’t to say that Burton has sapped the life out of him at all. But the more Depp works with Burton, the more we question his decision making skills. Loyalty is fine and good, but you can’t build a marriage off the back of such well-intentioned sentiment.

The pair reunited again for 2007′s ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.’ Burton dispatched with the whimsy and went straight for the jugular in his adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim musical. Depp was ferocious in the role, but the film still lacked any of the empathy of Burton’s earlier work. This was Burton going darker than ever, but it still felt like he was on auto-pilot. The costumes, the crazy hair, the make-up — everything had become a paint-by-numbers routine, including the casting of his wife, Helena Bonham Carter.

Burton made a complete 180 in 2010 with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ starring Depp as the quirky Mad Hatter. ‘Alice’ almost feels like the response to a dare. If you thought ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was a candy-coated, hollow endeavor, then ‘Alice’ would prove Burton capable of even more rampant vapidity. Even worse: He planned on taking all the talent involved down with him. It was a box office success, enhanced by its appropriately vacant use of 3D. ‘Alice’ was quirky, but it was almost too quirky, as if Burton was doing a parody of himself. The make-up, costumes, and set design were over the top, but everything looked — and felt — incredibly cheap. Burton had taken a time-honored classic story and pushed it through his newly minted plastic factory, and the result was grotesque.

With his latest effort, ‘Dark Shadows,’ Burton re-imagines a semi-popular 70s soap opera about a vampire named Barnabas Collins who awakens centuries later to discover his heirs on the edge of poverty. The entire film hinges on Collins (Depp) eliminating his family’s competition in the fishing industry. The humor is bland and lifeless, relying on tired fish out of water gags. But more importantly, every talented  actor in the film — Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jackie Earle Haley, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter — including Depp himself, is utterly squandered in the name of yet another manufactured Burton film. Burton has become his own designer knock-off, selling himself cheaply out of the trunk of a studio car. The aesthetic is the same, but the craftsmanship is all wrong.

The longer Depp works with Burton, the more we question his credibility. He’s better than this, and it feels like Burton is just using him as a crutch — a way to push his goods onto unsuspecting buyers. Without that star power attached, would Burton be allowed to continue to make such half-assed, heartless movies? Is Depp enabling him by signing the dotted line year after year? Is this the law of diminishing returns at work? It’s doubtful that Burton would come back to his senses —  to that place that charmed and moved us so many years ago — if Depp filed for creative divorce, but maybe it’s time the two of them agree to see other people… a trial separation, if you will.

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