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Review: “Sleepy Hollow”

Director: Tim Burton
Produced by: Scott Rudin & Adam Schroeder, Francis Ford Coppola & Larry Franco (executive producers)
Written by: Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker (also screenplay)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Christopher Walken
Music: Danny Elfman
Based on: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Year: 1999

 

It’s a sad fact that Tim Burton doesn’t seem to direct any more original stories. As of right now, the last time he helmed one of his own stories was Edward Scissorhands, a weird amalgamation of the themes of Frankenstein and Pinocchio but an original creation nonetheless.

Since that 1990 film, he’s gone on to direct a biopic (Ed Wood), a comic book adaptation (Batman Returns), a remake (Planet of the Apes), book adaptations (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland), a film adaptation of a musical (Sweeney Todd), and even an adaptation of trading cards in Mars Attacks!

If you want to get technical, though, his production and story credits for The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Coraline helmer Henry Selick) represents the last time he’s worked on a truly original Tim Burton project. Fans of the director no doubt know that his next directing job is an adaptation of the soap opera Dark Shadows, which is also yet another Burton project featuring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

I don’t point all this out to say that none of these films are any good. In my opinion, there are only a few truly bad films in there, primarily Apes and Alice, but many of them are admittedly at least decent entertainment, including the trashy but fun Mars Attacks!, and some of them even achieve greatness in their own right. Ed Wood, for example, is a great, sympathetic portrayal of the real director who became legendary for his awful films and penchant for cross dressing than he did his (deluded?) optimism and the frienships he formed with other Hollywood outcasts. The film also marked Burton’s first repeat collaboration with Johnny Depp, an actor the director has seemingly grown an unhealthy fixation on over the course of the past decade. I’d suggest that Burton go see a doctor over this obsession, but I think any insights into Burton’s surely deranged mind would destroy any doctor who tried to examine him in any capacity. Perhaps Burton will get his own biopic a la Ed Wood some time in the future, but it’ll probably have to be as loose as Ed Wood was.

I apologize for the exposition, but I felt it was necessary for this review that I point out that Burton is a strange breed of director. An obvious fact, I know, but, you see, I wanted to make it known that I didn’t hold any grudge against this film just because it’s yet another of Burton’s adaptations of a pre-existing story, and that I was, in fact, quite excited to see his take on the classic story. While I truthfully haven’t read the original Washington Irving short story, I was familiar with it due in large part to my childhood love of the animated Disney adaptation featuring the voice of Bing Crosby in the second half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. There was a take on the story that really made the story come alive! It even managed to make slapstick humor work within the same scene as the terrifying Headless Horseman chase, all without diminishing the fear factor of the Horseman himself.

Disney's take on the Horseman is actually pretty darn scary!

It’s telling, then, that that 45 minute comedic story was a lot more compelling than Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Sadly, this film falls in line with Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland as one of the director’s worst films. While the set design is pretty to look at, there’s nothing that was compelling me to keep watching other than the fact that I wanted to see this movie for a while but somehow never had. Sleepy Hollow literally made me sleepy. I had to backtrack a few times after dozing off, but I made it through.

Burton changed the curiously named Ichabod from a schoolmaster into an unorthodox police constable. Ichabod is misunderstood by his peers, because this is a Tim Burton film you see, and is gotten rid of by his colleagues by being sent into a dreary little place known as Sleepy Hollow, where he is told he must investigate the curious spike in the number of beheadings going on.

Ichabod is kind of the Dana Scully of the film, seeing all the evidence of the supernatural all around him while continually denying the possibility of it really existing, and love interest Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), daughter of a local rich farmer, is along for the ride to fulfill the Fox Mulder role of the more open minded half of the duo. Here, she is also a practitioner of witchcraft and even saves Ichabod with a potion. The original story’s antagonist, Brom Van Brunt (Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers), whom the original tale hinted at as the prime suspect in the disappearance of Ichabod at the hands of the Headless Horseman, is here reduced to a mere bully.

All the mystery of the Horseman is taken away thanks to Burton committing the sin of telling us just way too much information, giving into his to have his audiences understand the histories of even the most evil characters. There’s a key plot point about land ownership and vengeance, and something about one dishonest character controlling the revived horseman in order to obtain the land they feel entitled to, but I really couldn’t care any less about it. I really just didn’t care.

Depp is in full on eccentric mode here as Ichabod, playing the investigator as a squirmy, nervous nerd who’s just as afraid of expressing his affection for Katrina as he is the possibility of the supernatural Horseman actually existing. Christopher Walken, whose head is digitally removed when not shown in flashbacks, plays the Horseman, and there’s really not much else to say. It’s a commanding presence, but somehow it’s never quite as terrifying as even the stylized, silhouetted Disney depiction. Those flashbacks show the villain as a fearsome mercenary, but this is really only because he wears vampire-like stage makeup while beheading Revolutionary War soldiers. It’s like Dracula was hired by the British to do some reverse vampire slaying in the colonies. It’s really pretty silly.

"You will listen to my backstory, and you will LIKE IT!"

As for the other actors in the film, Ricci feels almost unnecessary, only thrown in there so that Depp has someone to act at. It’s sad because she has the potential to be a fun actor to watch, as she was in The Addams Family films and even more recently in Speed Racer, where she managed to be one of the highlights in an otherwise heavily flawed production. (This reminds me, I really should check out her recent TV role in Pan Am. I hear it’s pretty good.)

The cast is also littered with many other familiar faces. Ian McDiarmid, otherwise known as Emperor Palpatine, Michael Gambon, the second actor to play Dumbledore, Michael Gough, Alfred from the Burton/Schumacher Batman films, and Christopher Lee, who is … well, he’s Christopher Lee, what else do you need to know?… all make supporting appearances, but they’re really nothing more than extended cameos.

Allow me to be frank and say that this film really sucks. It’s little more than an artful slasher film and none of the changes Burton makes to it do it any good and made me care even less about it. Maybe I was just expecting too much from a film that, as I understood it, was actually gaining a little bit more respect as time has gone on. Maybe it’s because I had so much nostalgic affection for the Disney adaptation and wanted this to be that much better. Maybe it’s the recent slate of mediocre-or-worse horror films I’ve been watching. Or maybe it was the fact that I was annoyed that the Blu-Ray copy I rented wasn’t working and I had to go back to the store and get the DVD copy instead, only to find I went through all that trouble for a really dull film.

Whatever the reason, I really didn’t care much for this film. It’d be one thing if it were a stupid festival of mayhem or something with a little camp value, but, no. This movie does something even worse than just being bad: it’s also really freaking boring.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5

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