Tim Burton, who rocketed out of nowhere in the mid-1980s with a series of surreal blockbusters — “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice” and “Batman Returns” — has long been an enigma to Hollywood. The creator of bizarre, visually enchanting pictures steeped in farfetched adolescent fantasies, comic-strip imagery and the macabre sensibility of campy horror classics has often shrunk from the spotlight. In his trademark black clothes and unkempt hair, he seems to have stepped from the frames of one of his own productions. But he’s often projected a guilelessness about his work and career at odds with his canny flair for commercial success.
So although it’s no surprise Burton chose not to authorize this biography, it’s disappointing Hanke rarely sheds much light on the man behind the movies. Instead, Hanke has written a cut-and-paste chronicle of Burton’s career, larded with reviews from other sources, long plot synopses and quotes from interviews Burton has given to other reporters.
From such sources, Hanke produces a threadbare account of Burton’s disaffected boyhood in Burbank, Calif., the son of a parks department employee and the proprietor of a gift store called Cats Plus.
As Hanke tells it, Burton made his first animated films as a Disney fellow at Cal Arts, eventually scraping together funds for a short, unreleased Disney “Frankenstein” parody, “Frankenweenie.” The short was deemed too morbid for kids, but caught the attention of Stephen King and production executives at Warner Bros. who tapped him to direct “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
By 1990, the year his most original and personal film to date, “Edward Scissorhands,” was released, Burton was no longer a cult curiosity but a Hollywood superstar — and the remainder of this bio plots the various projects that followed and Burton’s well documented contretemps with studios and industry talent.
Hanke recounts how Warner Bros. and “Batman Returns” sponsor McDonald’s came under attack from parents groups who found the pic sexually suggestive; Disney’s lackluster marketing of “Ed Wood”; and Burton’s quarrels with Kevin Smith and other producers who sought in vain to put a Superman project into production with Burton at the helm.
Hanke is an unabashed enthusiast of Burton’s work. His prose is peppered with exclamation points, a style that ill-serves a full-blown biography; ultimately, this is more a methodical book-length fanzine about a true Hollywood original.