Tim Burton has always been a polarizing figure in cinematic circles for his unconventional ways of making art. And let’s not kid ourselves, he is first and foremost an artist. It’s no secret that his art, like all bodies of work worth discussing, has been worshiped, puzzled over, and shunned for many years. He’s a man that you’ve either come to love or hate for his gothic portrayals of fantasy, quirky takes on horror, and dark homages on the macabre. I, for one, can understand the disappointment with Burton’s latest outings, as they reveal a creator who’s forgotten how to create. With the hordes of recent less-than-stellar remakes and re-imaginings, it’s quite easy to forget the cult classics he’s bestowed upon us. But since it’s Halloween season, let me be a guide to remind you.
I transport you back to a time long before Burton became a victim of his own design. A time where he was still a fresh faced 24-year-old who had just graduated from CalArts to become a character animator. He had already been recruited by Walt Disney’s animation studio to help lend his conceptual expertise to such childhood essentials as The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, and Tron. Even then, Burton’s bizarre mojo clashed with those in control who didn’t quite know what to do with him, much like some future audiences. His talent remained undeniably respected, but it was difficult to find an appropriate avenue to utilize them without restrictions. This, of course, gave light to the realization that Burton was destined for greater things as a leader instead of a follower. Disney offered a courteous chance to showcase this by giving the green light to his first short film with them.
The aptly-titled Vincent is a nearly seven-minute black-and-white stop-motion solo project based on a poem Burton wrote. One that was inspired by his love for iconic horror actor Vincent Price. Its story centers on a 7-year-old boy who pretends he’s the aforementioned actor caught in terrifying tales from Edgar Allan Poe. Far removed from the realm of reality, Vincent Malloy daydreams about being a tortured soul that’s unable to escape the same woes of the narrator of “The Raven.” The imagery is suitably eerie, to say the least, but awe inspiring to witness in its 1920s German expressionist style. For a short film shot in 1982, with merely a $60,000 budget, it not only shattered the glass ceiling of animation at the time, but gave focus to Burton’s pioneering flair. It encompassed everything he adored, was capable of, and went on to achieve with dreary sympathetic loners in color popping worlds.
Vincent’s stark character portrayal mirrors Burton’s likeness to a tee, and in his direction, offers a special glimpse into the power of lifelong influences. The dream vehicle is fulfilled thanks to being narrated by the late, great Vincent Price himself, which adds emotional weight to the time and care that was put into it. Burton has gone on record to say it’s, without a doubt, one of the most shaping experiences in his career and Price reciprocated by attesting likewise. The two-month-long production birthed such an endearing friendship between the two, and they would later go on to deliver one of my all time favorite films, Edward Scissorhands. Not only that, but a cameo from Jack Skellington and a theme of animal experimentation sparked The Nightmare Before Christmas and Frankenweenie. It also continued to stylistically pave the way for underrated gems such as Corpse Bride.
From a personal perspective, I find myself so enthralled with Vincent because it so perfectly sums up how I was as a younger child. Being introduced to Burton’s earlier work at such an impressionable time, I fortunately discovered and fell in love with both Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe. Much like the character of Vincent, they dared me to let my imagination run rampant and I honestly owe a great deal to them for wanting to become a writer. I became obsessed, in the same regard, with the allure of gothic horror. I’ve always naturally gravitated to the more strangely morbid forms of artistic expression and the fact that many misunderstand it has only made me a stronger person. It’s the main reason I feel others, with a mutual connection like mine, can view those like Burton in such a different light. You can rediscover what has made Burton such a staple in so many upbringings by viewing one of his crowning works of art below. It will still surprise fans and critics with how flawlessly it holds up by today’s standards.