With each new Tim Burton film that comes out, one suspects more and more that the supposed auteur would direct anything handed to him if it seemed to be in his wheelhouse — “on brand,” as the kids are saying these days. With chancey gambits like Dark Shadows and Corpse Bride, one suspects that any half-baked thing is possible, especially if a Depp is thrown in with the deal. Surprisingly, this year he is showing — for the first time in recent memory — some degree of restraint: He is not directing the Alice in Wonderland sequel Through the Looking Glass, only producing. Good for Tim, one thinks. This fella won’t leap at anything that’s the least bit Burton-ian and dig himself any deeper into the hole of self-parody he’s been mired in since the days of Big Fish. Sure, he’ll throw some money at budget Burton material, but he’ll be gracious enough to let somebody else do his dirty work.
This sort of situation has cropped up before; no, don’t worry, I’m not talking about The Nightmare Before Christmas. In the wake of the first two Batman films and Edward Scissorhands, the director’s brand was more in demand that it would be before or after. Later, director Adam Resnick and star Chris Elliott would clarify that their 1994 Burton-produced “comedy”-adventure film Cabin Boy was a self-conscious attempt on Disney’s part to deliver material in the genre of Burton. As they put it in an interview with Gelf Magazine:
“Disney was sort of kissing [Burton’s] ass at the time because they wanted him to make a deal there,” Resnick explained. “So to show Tim a little good faith, they made all his weird shit for him.” Elliott added, “The early scripts came out great. But then [Burton] didn’t want to direct it.” Resnick, who did direct it, quickly added, “And that’s when the trouble started.”
I suppose that the fact that Burton didn’t take on Cabin Boy is indicative of his good taste. Another view, though, is that he is a coward. The script is certainly far weirder, more difficult to characterize, and adventurous than anything he ever made on his own. Written in garbled pseudo-upper-crust-English language and enacted against neon-tinted, nearly one-dimensional stage sets, Cabin Boy embraces the uncanny, lopsided cadence of a good Burton film with none of the logic or tonal focus. Certainly, the director’s early aesthetic is there, and it’s the film’s best element. There are stop-motion-animated, fanged iceberg monsters, and a floating, green-lipped cupcake which screams and spits tobacco in Chris Elliott’s face.
The vibe, in a phrase, is Robert Altman’s Popeye mixed with Beetlejuice through the lens of a fierce salvia high. It’s set in no particular time or place, populated with characters with no fixed personality traits, soundtracked by obscene sea shanties and avant-garde orchestral music, and haunted by the phrase “fancy lad.”
One can see, beneath it all, how this coming-of-age story of insufferable aristocrat-cum-deck-swabber Nathaniel (Elliott) might have seemed like a slightly racier spiritual sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Across the multiple drafts and personnel changes, however, all the discernible jokes were wrung out. You’re left with shadows of them, perhaps. There’s Conan’s sidekick Andy Richter — playing the textbook definition of a “simple” character, and fellow crew member on “The Filthy Whore” — gyrating from the hips, declaring “This is how ladies in a harem dance.” There’s Elliott, delirious from sunstroke, flapping his arms and screaming, “I can fly, I’m a parakeet, someone give me a sunflower seed.”
Instead of a comedy in a traditional sense, though, the viewer is left with something more like a feature-length “Salad Fingers” with a lot of Greek mythology references: It’s creepy, disconcerting, and definitely psychedelic. Elliott has sex with a blue, many-armed oracle living in a mountain, a rite of passage for undergoing a Steve-Urkel-to-Stefan-Urquelle-like transformation from “cabin boy” to “cabin man.” Elliott defeats her husband — a Danny Aiello-esque businessman giant named “Mulligan” — like he’s Odysseus in a powdered wig, with the help of a mysterious half-shark, half-human merman named Chocki … played by Russ Tamblyn.
Yep, Cabin Boy is a trip, and it doesn’t get easier to understand as you get older. In fact, it probably makes the most sense at the age of eight, even if it seems custom-made to be the stuff of nightmares. That’s the main thing: Cabin Boy is not made for anyone’s pleasure, and that includes the people who actually worked on it, who seem to have no love lost for it. No one in the world of the movie seems to like each other, and none of those people, in real life, liked the movie. It’s just a big grumpy group of people, clearly unsure of what they’re doing or why they’re there, making the strangest Hollywood comedy of the ‘90s.
In the face of Burton’s current, immutable mediocrity, one might like to see Burton step behind the camera for something as outright misbegotten as Cabin Boy. I might point to his refusal to direct the project — of which he was an instrumental part in the early stages — as proof that Burton was never truly as kooky and adventurous as we thought he was. That year, he would direct Ed Wood, whose real-life work he claimed to have actual affection for. And yet, Burton would not attempt a film that would end up being as close in tone to Ed Wood’s actual oeuvre as anything with a millions-strong Hollywood budget has ever been.