Tim Burton takes a lot of guff. Admittedly, much of it is justified. Any director brazen enough to think the world was clamoring for a mall-goth interpretation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is clearly jumping their own train. But the knee-jerk critical reaction these days to any film bearing his name is snickering derision. Even casual cinema-goers know the critiques: Every movie looks the same, he always casts the same actors, he stays fixated on the same themes. But those things could also be said of Hollywood's most lauded auteurs. There's something unfair about that kind of groupthink.
All this probably reads as buildup to a glowing review of his newest project and a declaration that classic Tim Burton is back to silence the haters. Not quite. Dark Shadows, his adaptation of the '60s cult television drama, is a minor Burton, neither grazing the highs of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands nor wallowing in the muck of his rancid Planet of the Apes remake. Still, the groaning along press row as the end credits rolled at the advance screening compel a soft defense starting with the positives.
First of all, kudos to Burton for finally choosing to rebrand a property not well remembered by the general public. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but Dark Shadows is precisely the sort of musty franchise he should've been freshening up. Some die-hards were concerned about Burton's decision to convert what was, in essence, a straight-faced supernatural soap opera into a comic farce. Like we need another vampire love triangle taking itself too seriously. Instead, Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) commit to an unapologetically goofy sense of humor. Their Dark Shadows is basically Arrested Development via Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride, with Johnny Depp as a ghoulish, throat-ripping Michael Bluth. He plays Barnabas Collins, a cursed bloodsucking dandy awakened in 1972 after two centuries buried underground. Unearthed in the New England port town bearing his family's name, he has two objectives: consummate a relationship with his great-great-great nephew's alluring governess (Bella Heathcote, a velvet painting of a cartoon Chihuahua come to life) and help his dysfunctional descendents revive their fish cannery business.
After years of taking on roles as asexual weirdos with no parameters on how bizarre he could play them, it's refreshing to see Depp—looking like Nosferatu in his little-known Victorian playboy days—hemmed in and mannered, working primarily through his eyebrows. The jokes are generally of the "man-out-of-time" variety, with Barnabas marveling over lava lamps, troll dolls and the music of Steve Miller. So, maybe the comedy isn't much more sophisticated than that of Encino Man, but it has a certain charm. "Are you stoned or something?" Chloe Grace Moretz asks upon first meeting her great-great-great uncle. "They tried to stone me," he responds. "It did not work."
The problem is an overstuffed script. Burton's got a talented ensemble cast—which also includes Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, the remarkably well-preserved Michelle Pfeiffer and, of course, Helena Bonham Carter—and a TV season's worth of story arcs, but only two hours to cram them all in. As a result, the narrative is a mess, with the movie seemingly forgetting about certain characters for long stretches, then dispatching them altogether once it has run out of things for them to do. Visually, Burton can still make eyes go wide, but his mall-goth spectacle isn't spectacular enough here to compensate for the film's utter lack of focus. Although intermittently fun, Dark Shadows ends up reminding of another of Burton's adaptations: It's sleepy and hollow.
SEE IT: Dark Shadows opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Mill Plain, Cornelius, Lake Twin, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Cinema 99, City Center, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville.