Tim Burton is not a fan of the horizontally-challenged.
That’s the conclusion I reached from watching Frankenweenie, an otherwise very pleasant return to form for for the director. What isn’t so pleasant is how every paunchy character — the mayor, the gym coach, and the chubby kid whose name doesn’t matter — is cackled at by Burton and turned into a visual punch-line. Burton portrays these characters in a way that seems antithetical to how most people perceive him and his films… with a casual dash of mean-spiritedness.
The one constant in Burton’s films, aside from Johnny Depp obviously, is that he’s always championed the outcasts and made them the eventual heroes of their worlds. Think of the Goth cutter Edward Scissorhands defeating the jock bully, the goofy Amish kid saving the day in Mars Attacks, the friendless Charlie Bucket outlasting the truly bad kids to win the chocolate factory, etc.
Looking back at his work, though, it seems clear that Burton himself has been acting the bully when it comes to even the mildly obese. They’re made to be clumsy, goofy, obnoxious and irritating, and if they don’t exist strictly as a visual gag they’re almost sure to be a villain. Can you think of one overweight hero or true good guy in his films? I can’t.
Why would a man so feverishly in favor of defending and uplifting outsiders himself single out a specific group of people to consistently bully throughout his career? Hell if I know, but here are ten examples of him marking the overweight as punching bags and bad guys:
1985’s Villain: Francis Buxton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure)
There is nothing to the character of Buxton aside from a hatred of Pee-Wee and a desire for his bicycle. On paper Francis is a misunderstood, tragic figure. He’s got his daddy’s money, but he’s utterly friendless. Pee-Wee is loved by everyone, idiosyncrasies and all, and yet he can’t help out the poor, lonely Francis and just giving him a damn bicycle? Both Pee-Wee and Burton hate this empathetic man, and it can’t only be because he wants to feel the wind between his legs.
1988’s Punch Line: Otho (Beetlejuice)
Otho is the biggest snob in a movie filled with snobs, and once again we’re dealing with another one-note caricature pitted against attractive, pencil-stick protagonists. Burton uses Otho’s weight to show how privileged and pretentious he is, that he eats whatever he wants in his sight, with no other reason whatsoever. Did Burton ever consider that Otho has a lot going on his life? Maybe he’s a stress eater whose wife left him? I mean, who really knows what’s going on in Otho’s head? All Burton knows is that he’s too big to be cool and multi-chins are funny when they’re scared.
1989’s Villain: Eckhart (Batman)
Eckhart is the only plump character in any of Batman‘s major roles, and he’s easily the most disgusting character around. Not an easy feat when you compare him to a moderately chubby psychopath like The Joker. He’s also super corrupt. Why? Burton’s response would probably be, “Because he is big, and a Gotham cop’s salary don’t pay for that appetite.” No other explanations are given so what else can we assume? Batman doesn’t need a meditative look into the inner-workings of a filthy cop, but Burton mainly lets the audience know he’s filthy based on his appearance alone.
1992’s Villain: The Penguin (Batman Returns)
Nothing but bad things happen to The Penguin. Pee-Wee was probably bugged more by his size than his penguinness, knowing Burton. The Penguin’s shape make sense since he is half-penguin after all, but Burton once again goes out of his way to poke fun at his size. When you see the villain on the little remote control cute ducky device, it’s meant to be funny because he is too big for it, not because he is controlling the Batmobile with such a ridiculous device.
1993’s Villain: Oogie Boogie (The Tim Burton-produced A Nightmare Before Christmas)
The lovable hero here couldn’t be skinnier, so of course the final villain couldn’t have been fattier. Why couldn’t the Oogie Boogie man have been skinny too? Wouldn’t the terrifying design still have been effective? Or do Burton and director Henry Selick believe the horror comes purely out of his size? On a more logistical and nitpicky level, how can the Oogie Boogie man be so big? What does he eat? How can he eat? Too many questions gone unanswered by Burton & Co.
1996’s Punch Line: Billy Glenn Norris (Mars Attacks)
Burton loves it when this character dies considering it’s made out as one of the funnier parts of Mars Attacks. What’s weird though is that deep down Billy Glenn Norris is just a guy who wants to serve his country. He’s a natural born soldier, but considering how much he’s mocked in the film you have to ask yourself… does Tim Burton hate all of our troops or just the chubby ones?
2001’s Punch Line: Limbo (Planet of the Apes)
Limbo is more grating than Mark Wahlberg in this movie, which is saying a lot. Nearly all the other apes are strong and commanding, but the main one we see who isn’t so fit is conniving, obnoxious, and lazy. Limbo is out for himself for most of the movie and doesn’t care about the greater ramifications of what he’s doing. In a sense, he’s more vile than the more violent apes of the movie because he’s out purely for himself. The meanest ape of all happens to be the chubbiest. Surprise.
2003’s Villain: Don Price (Big Fish)
Done Price isn’t a bad guy by most villain standards. He is a bit of a jerk, especially his “that’s my girl!” shtick, but did he deserve to die of a heart attack because Edward Bloom always overshadowed him? No. Besides letting off some steam on Bloom’s face, he never did anything horrible in the movie. Unlike Boom, Don Price never abandoned his family or literally annoyed his son to tears, and yet he suffered the younger and funnier death between them.
2005’s Punch Line: Augustus Gloop (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Doesn’t this picture say it all?
2012 Punch Lines: Every Sizable Character (Frankenweenie)
Out of all of Burton’s bashing, this is the strangest example. At the heart of Frankenweenie is a kind-natured, gentle story of a boy and his best friend. But the way the Mayor, that one kid behind the Sea Monkey experiment, and the gym coach are handled feels tonally inappropriate. Why have a nasty joke in a movie going for a big heart? Then again, that question could be asked of most of Burton’s movies.