On Tim Burton, ‘Addams Family,’ and the death of creativity

06.30.10 7 years ago 15 Comments

Charles Addams Foundation

I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn that Charles Addams was a major influence on the artistic style of a young Tim Burton.  I’m sure Edward Gorey and Gahan Wilson were equally influential in terms of ghoulish silly sensibility, but when you look at the black and white line work of Charles Addams, you see the direct precursor to almost every one of Burton’s signature quirks.

That’s cool.  Burton wears his childhood influences like an open book, like many great visual stylists do, and in his case, he’s always been partial to a mix of the morbid and the hilarious.  Addams is the master of that.  I would argue that more people know his style from the original ’60s TV show “The Addams Family” or the feature films that were made in the ’90s than are actually familiar with his cartoons.

Understandably.  Right now, the one place you can read the amazing work that Addams left behind is in those weird book things. The Addams family (the real one, not the creepy ooky kooky one) has worked hard to keep his work off of the Internet.  There are only a handful of his hundreds of cartoons online, and since it’s so important to the estate, I won’t reprint one here as an example.  The reality is, it’s far more likely that people stumbled across the TV show or the movies or the animated cartoon versions that have existed at various times, simply because that stuff is actively out there, easy to stumble over.

He worked in single-panels for the most part, so it’s not like Charles Addams had some richly detailed and elaborate mythology that he created.  The “characters” really only took shape gradually, once they moved over to the TV show.  There were two different live action series, several different animated series, the two feature films from Barry Sonnenfeld, and then some direct to video sequels, and there have been many different actors who have appeared in the various roles.  At this point, Gomez and Morticia and Wednesday and Uncle Fester and Lurch and Pugsley have become icons, and right now, Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane are starring in the musical version onstage, taking their turn.

We’ve got some upcoming coverage of the film “Despicable Me,” and you can feel the Charles Addams influence in that film as well.  When I visited the offices of Illumination Entertainment to meet Chris Meledandri, he had several of the Addams collections, and he spoke about how much that work means to him.  Dr. Seuss seems to be another major influence on Meledandri, and he got to work with Seuss’s iconic characters on “Horton Hears A Who” and the upcoming “The Lorax.”  I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that he decided to go whole-hog and actually option the rights to the characters once again for a stop-motion animated version of “The Addams Family.”

But reading the rumors about Tim Burton signing on to direct the film for Meledandri… that depresses me.  This week, Meledandri has fanned the flames again, saying that they’re developing it with Burton in mind.  I’m sure that’s because everyone says he’s “perfect” for it.  In the past few years, we’ve seen Burton make several films that were “perfect” for him.  “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”  “Alice In Wonderland.”  In the hypothetical, those films sound like they would be easy home runs, movies that perfectly match his strengths, but in practice, I found both of them to be nearly impossible to sit through, badly realized exercises in art direction.

Hasn’t Burton already worked out this impulse?  When you look at “Vincent” or “Frankenweenie,” you can see how strongly influenced they are visually, and “Beetlejuice” features Winona Ryder basically playing Wednesday Addams.  So if he’s already done his own original take, starting from this as an inspiration, why go to the source and do it again?  Does anyone think Burton’s actually got something to say about these characters that he hasn’t already said or done?

So I’m going to implore Meledandri and Universal… please… if you want to use his name to sell the movie, make him a producer and ask him to visit the sets a few times and play with the groovy Addams characters… but don’t ask Tim Burton to direct the film.  You’ll get another non-movie.  You’ll get another one of these trailers that show a whole bunch of characters that look really neat, and then there will be two hours of characters standing around and being introduced and there won’t be any story that anyone cares about to tie it all together and it won’t matter and you’ll sell seventeen tons of merchandise at Hot Topic and there will be lots of pleased talk about the “property” and the “franchise” and the “units,” but is that really why you want to make a movie based on the work of Charles Addams?

At some point, don’t do the easy thing.  Do the hard thing.  What kills creativity is when everything’s too easy, when everything is decided based on how it looks on a poster.  Find a filmmaker who has a great idea, not a filmmaker whose name will get you an automatic t-shirt deal.  Don’t just make the knee-jerk decision, and yes… I know I’m just some dude on a website and Tim Burton’s last film earned a billion dollars, and that’s what every decision is based on in Hollywood… I KNOW THAT… but just because that’s how things are done, does that mean that’s how every single thing has to be done?

Please… at this point I don’t believe there’s any stemming the septic tide of non-stop remakes.  But at least if you insist on going over and over familiar ground, make some brave choices in the process.

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You can e-mail me at drew@hitfix.com or follow me on Twitter, where I’m DrewAtHitFix.

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