Whatever happened to the great storyteller of Tim Burton's youth?
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30 Sep 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 9:30 AM

Friday is not the day to visit the Tim Burton exhibition at Melbourne's ACMI complex. Friday, unbeknownst to me, is 'School Excursion Day' – the one day of the week when hordes of shrill high-school students and black-clad art-majors descend upon the acclaimed filmmaker's bizarre and brilliant collection of sketches, which has been captivating a national audience since arriving from New York's Museum of Modern Art earlier this year.

Despite the crowd, I can't help but be mesmerised by an early '80s colour sketch of Burton's called 'Mothera'. It is a fiendishly funny caricature of the average suburban 'mom', rendered as a monstrous slug-like creature, with tentacles that end in vacuums, TV's and brooms and a row of cutlery lining her spine. Here children also hang from her appendages, screeching in her wake.

My first thought was “God, I'd love to see him put this in a movie!” which led to “Why hasn't he put this in a movie?” I came to the conclusion that the only reason the dark, beautiful images that surrounded me, created over nearly three decades from the mind of one of the most successful film directors of all time, had not been in a Tim Burton movie was that Tim Burton would have to find a purpose, a plot, a story for them to exist.

It was a revelation to me, but it was clear – Tim Burton is not a storyteller; his sketched images, like 'Mothera', are the closest he has ever come to telling a story of his own creation. There was a disconnect between this room of yellowing pages, sheets that had served his imagination so well, and the films he makes, which are merely Burton's versions of other people's creations.

Looking around me, I saw Burton's vision everywhere – for writer Julie Hickson's 1982 television special Hansel and Gretel; for Paul Reuben's and the late Phil Hartman's script for Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985); for Warren Skaaren's and Michael McDowell's brilliant comedy Beetle Juice (1988). When 1989's Batman hit big, he parlayed his success into one more unique writer's vision – Caroline Thompson's Edward Scissorhands (1990). But Batman was a turning point for Burton, who set himself on a very clear career path – he was now in a position to put his unique visual spin on some of the most well-known stories ever written. It was the ultimate creative-cushion for Burton – he needn't worry about telling the story at all anymore because everyone already knew it.

Batman Returns (1992), Ed Wood (1994), Mars Attacks (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Planet of the Apes (2001), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) – tales that audiences, by and large, already knew in detail when they bought their tickets. The one film that Burton did tackle from an original story – Big Fish (2003), which writer John August adapted from a Daniel Wallace novel – was a disaster; Burton ladled on his trademark visual eccentricity and off-kilter whimsy whilst ignoring the more traditional storytelling elements such as plot or character.

The closest Burton came to realising a cinematic version of the sketches that fill his exhibit was Corpse Bride (2005), but he still lacked the confidence to write his own words – he would only take a 'Characters by...' credit on the film. And for those hoping that the full-length feature version of his cult short Frankenweenie, due in cinemas in 2012, will be Burton through-and-through...well, he has hired John August to once again give voice to what many consider his most endearing creation.

Mr. Burton, you have the power to do whatever you want. Use the technology at hand and give us an epic CGI rendering of your darkest, most fascinating characters; define the mental processes, however challenging it may be, from where your hilarious, macabre drawings spring forth and use the source to create your defining movie masterpiece.

As unbelievable as it may seem, I am convinced audiences would pay to see Tim Burton's 'Mothera' come alive. Imagine her hulking, hideous frame sharing an IMAX 3D screen with a landscape of devilish Burton etchings! Most importantly, by his giving cinematic life to his shrieking she-beast, his ardent followers may finally be provided with some long-overdue insight into one of the world's most unique and beloved creative talents.

ACMI's Tim Burton: The Exhibition is in its final weeks.

Hear Tim Burton's thoughts on the exhibition here