Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tim Burton would direct a remake of Dumbo (1941) using a mix of CGI and live action. Of course, this isn’t the first time Burton has remade one of Disney’s animated “classics.” Alice in Wonderland was released in 2010 to critical indifference and a box office bonanza of $1 billion; a sequel is planned for 2016. While the Dumbo pairing thus makes obvious commercial sense, it has occasioned eye-rolling humor (the obvious joke, that Johnny Depp would play the titular elephant, was retold ad nauseam on Twitter) and reactionary outrage at the sullying of a beloved classic. It has also renewed a widely-expressed concern that Burton, the object of a fervent cult for his “dark, gothic, macabre, and quirky” films, has become terminally compromised by his association with Disney and his fixation on remakes. The A.V. Club lamented that a “director once known for his startlingly original vision” is “now known for his limp adaptations of existing properties.” But putting the question of creative decline aside, Burton’s “vision”—or more concretely, his three-decade career—is defined by a synergy of two broad trends: filmmakers’ devotion to pop-cultural allusions and media corporations’ equally obsessive recycling of intellectual property in an effort to create and sustain franchises.
For the past half-century, American directors have stuffed their films with citations of other films, television shows, and pop-culture artifacts. In his 1982 essay “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),” Noël Carroll argued that allusion “has become a major expressive device” in American cinema, with many popular films employing a “two-tiered system of communication” in which a subset of the audience appreciates the work as much for its knowing references as for its more familiar “action/drama/fantasy” pleasures. While much American film and television continues to operate on these two levels, subsequent decades have seen a kind of democratizing of allusionism, such that a large portion of the contemporary audience has come to expect and appreciate a weave of cross-references in their popular media. The intricate interconnections of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” no less than Quentin Tarantino’s bricolage testify to this.
Over the years, Tim Burton’s films have helped to tutor the mass audience in the pleasures of allusionism. His earliest works, even those with “original” premises, rely almost entirely on allusions for their meanings and effects. His stop-motion short Vincent (1982) concerns a boy’s fascination with Vincent Price, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American International Pictures in the 1960s. The live-action Luau (also 1982) pastiches several genres of 1960s drive-in movies. Burton’s first features are less pure instances of allusionism, but only slightly. His breakthrough, Beetlejuice (1988), is a horror-comedy dense with references to The Wizard of Oz, The Fly, and The Exorcist. Edward Scissorhands (1990) might have been pitched as Frankenstein Meets Beauty and the Beast. Mars Attacks! (1997) is a parody of Cold War alien-invasion films.
Adaptations and remakes arguably represent one end-point of this reliance on allusion, and Burton took this short leap early in his career. His critical cachet and attraction to cultural recyclables made him an ideal director for studios’ efforts to revive valuable intellectual property. In 1986, for a rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burton re-filmed the 1964 teleplay adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Jar.” Warner Brothers’ Batman (1989) was a landmark in corporate synergy for its integrated marketing and merchandising and for its legacy of comic-book blockbusters. Fox’s Planet of the Apes (2001) was a failed effort to reboot a franchise. Even outside of a blockbuster context, Burton has been drawn to familiar stories with prominent cinematic or televisual intertexts, from Sleepy Hollow (2009; it owes as much to the 1949 Disney animation as to Washington Irving’s story) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).
Burton’s association with Disney goes back 35 years, to his origins as an animator for the company in the late 1970s. Vincent was, in fact, a Walt Disney Production. His work has exhibited a scholarly devotion to Disney history, as in Corpse Bride‘s quotation of the 1929 Silly Symphony “Skeleton Dance.” The first feature Burton made for the company was Ed Wood (1994), distributed by Disney’s “adult” imprint Touchstone. Although the stuff of Ed Wood’s no-budget films would seem worlds away from Disney’s ethos, Burton’s biopic lightly sanitizes its subject, effecting a willfully ahistorical transformation of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Wood’s “miserable, abject failure of a career” into a postmodern “celebration” whose affected innocence is paradoxically a function of the film’s (and tacitly the audience’s) knowingness. In other words, Burton Disney-fies Ed Wood. This operation is akin to the remaking of Uncle Walt himself in 2013’s relatively edgy—for Disney—Saving Mr. Banks, which engages its audience’s knowing skepticism about Disney only to revise and revive his myth, as Mike Budd argues in a recent essay for Jump Cut.
Alice in Wonderland was thus not just a joining of two brands but a reunion, one that Dumbo will extend. It was also an especially profitable instance of the ubiquitous corporate practice of recycling intellectual property. The Walt Disney Company helped to popularize this strategy in the mid-20th century and has relied upon it more than ever in the 21st; witness their recent acquisitions of the Muppets, Marvel Entertainment, and the Star Wars franchise. Within this broad program of recycled properties is a systematic campaign, often credited to Walt Disney Pictures’ Sean Bailey, to reinvigorate interest in their “legacy” films through a new series of high-profile features. In addition to remakes of Alice, Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Pete’s Dragon (2016), and Dumbo Disney has produced a “re-imagining” of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent, 2014) and a fictionalized “making-of” Mary Poppins (Saving Mr. Banks). There are a host of other, slightly more ambiguous cases in the works. These films not only generate or promise huge profits. They also turn the settings and characters of discrete stories into franchise fodder. In this context, allusions allow intellectual properties to exfoliate: Sleeping Beauty spins off Maleficent, which spins off a Disney Channel series, and so on. Films like Saving Mr. Banks and Maleficent also serve as feature-length advertisements for Disney’s film library, which had historically been subject to carefully-spaced-out theatrical revivals and then limited DVD and Blu-Ray editions. This new cycle of remakes and other franchise-extenders is, among other things, Disney’s response to a stagnating home-video market.
Disney has sought to validate its remake of Dumbo by reference to Tim Burton’s body of work. The WSJ report, no doubt inspired by a Disney press release, made sure to note that “[c]ircus motifs have been a favorite of Mr. Burton . . . going back to the Red Triangle Circus Gang in his Batman Returns.” This tenuous association appears quaint in light of the deeper connection that Burton has to Disney and the process that has governed his career for at least a quarter of a century: the aesthetic logic of allusionism converging with the corporate logic of franchising.