Tim Burton has proven his enormous talent as a filmmaker with the strikingly, cartoony, horrific, skewed, and often silly images which populate his universe. But for a filmmaker with such an attraction to fables, fairy tales, and ghost stories, Burton is notably deficient as a narrative storyteller. Burton is brilliant with design, as seen in his double take on Batman as well as films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, but the stories themselves often reveal themselves as flimsy frames for Burton's childlike flights of fantasy. Never has this puzzling syndrome been more apparent than with Burton's latest, Sleepy Hollow.
Loosely based on Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the new film alternates jerkily between the slam-bang action sequences, abundant atmosphere (aided immeasurably by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), and winking cameos that distinguish Burton's whimsical style and thuddingly mechanical spurts of plot which step into cliche and self-parody.
Andrew Kevin Walker's script is sadly weak, though clearly given an able polish by Tom Stoppard. As we count the minutes to the next Grand Guignol beheading by the famed Headless Horseman, we suffer the clumsy advancement of a typical Hollywood-style, mystery-thriller plot, complete with the femme fatale (easy-on-the-eyes Christina Ricci) and unwieldy, climactic, "I did it and here's why" speech from the villain.
Nevertheless, Burton peskily crams the edges of this overgrown "B" movie with great touches, like Johnny Depp in another arch, but unavoidably entertaining performance. Getting past the uncanny Austin Powers dialect, Depp paints constable Ichabod Crane (a schoolteacher in the original story) as a bumbling detective with a twist: this guy is shamelessly willing to run and hide from danger.
Along the way, we get Burton's exotic devices and biological oddities (wait, with the headless fetish, maybe this should have been a Cronenberg movie). Burton fans will enjoy supporting performances by regulars Michael Gough and Jeffrey Jones, among others. The director also alludes sportingly to Disney's version of the story and the beloved Hammer horror films of his youth. It's almost always worth it to watch Burton do his thing, but the nagging whisper will rise up from the gnarled trees and mist of the hollow, "Why isn't this a better film?"