How Tim Burton found his weird roots in Hansel and Gretel

Many of the director’s trademarks can be seen in his 1982 adaptation of the classic Grimms’ fairy tale.


Alex Chambers

Tim Burton’s filmography is both extensive and uniquely cohesive. His images aren’t just dark and twisted, they’re dark and twisted in the trademark Burton way. The characters have the same skull-socket eyes, the houses lean at the same skewed angle. So with that DNA so deep in all his projects, it’s hard imagining him working to someone else’s stylistic guidelines. Which is what happened when, in a pretty sweet deal for any animation student just out of college, he landed a job at Disney. According to Burton in a Rolling Stone interview, “I almost went insane.”

There’s a great video of Burton in a small office deep in Disney’s corridors, looking like he’s having the most tortuous work day imaginable. It’s not surprising for Burton to look like a character out of one of his films, but he doesn’t normally embody so perfectly the zombie-like figure trapped in a bewilderingly nightmarish world. It could be Burton playing a particularly beleaguered version of his himself for the camera. Yet he has also said that he felt stuck in an environment that demanded a consistently cute and wholesome style that was alien to the kind of imagination that had drawn him to animation in the first place.

Unable to cut it with the woodland animals, Burton was consigned to work on background design. But there were producers at the studio that saw something in the art he was turning out, and he got the chance to produce an adaption of Hansel and Gretel that would air on the newly launched Disney Channel. The short aired once, on Halloween, and unsurprisingly wasn’t preserved as an instant classic of the Disney canon. It was the 2009 MoMA retrospective of Burton’s work that uncovered the film, at a point where his style had not only developed into a popular body of work, but also a touchstone for teen visual culture. Jack Skellington had become almost as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse, and way more relevant.

The film was Burton’s first attempt at live action, though it feels like the actors have been shrunk down to fit in the film’s world, rather than a translation of Burton’s style to life-size. Everything is spookily animate, from the eyes that cover the house itself to the toys that Burton designed with production designer Rick Heinrichs, who would go on to work on many of Burton’s high-profile projects. It’s more lo-fi and more art-school than the video game worlds of films like 2005’s Charlie and The Chocolate Factory or 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, but otherwise it’s unmistakably Tim Burton.

The only notable deviation from the Burton formula is the all-Asian cast. It could have been a weird-for-weird’s-sake gimmick, casting Asian-American actors in a folk tale that is normally depicted as an Old World Germanic myth. And it’s not like Burton’s saying anything radically progressive about stereotypes here; the final battle is fought out kung-fu style with candy cane nunchucks and throwing star cookies. But it’s an interesting choice from a director whose world of semi-nostalgic, semi-grotesque American Gothic is almost uniformly white.

It feels more at home in a gallery than the Disney Channel, an experiment that doesn’t quite hang together. The visually inventive puppets often steal the scene from the actors, though the performances almost approach a kind of Noh theatre in their stylised movements. It’s weird but not the carefully controlled weird of his later work. Whatever it is, it’s determinedly anti-Disney.

Published 24 May 2016

Tags: Alice in Wonderland Disney Tim Burton

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