I was having a conversation with a friend the other day that drifted to Tim Burton. I was swearing at the brilliance of Big Fish – Burton’s second-best (says me) and she was swearing by Edward Scisshorshands. Afterwards I wondered why Sleepy Hollow never factored into the discussion. When I recapped the brilliance of 1999 there was a host of great films and I’m unembarrassed to say that Sleepy Hollow was one of the best. Despite its excellence, technically and otherwise, I rarely hear it mentioned when discussions on Burton arise. Save for Corpse Bride I think Burton’s brilliance lies in adapting stories and twisting them into the strangest ways (see Beetle Juice, Batman, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd). He’s not a Woody Allen who thrives on doing his own work, and that doesn’t make him any less of a marvel (when he gets it right).
The original tale of Sleepy Hollow is eons away, plot wise, from its cinematic counterpart. The most startling deviation is – of course – to be found in Johnny Depp’s Icabod. I find the original story to be only vaguely interesting and Burton’s variations work well. Though I don’t consider Sleepy Hollow his greatest I’d easily call it his most technically proficient – and that’s saying something in itself. The film is the sort of anomalous thing that attempts to blend comedy, drama, tragedy, mystery, horror and yes, even romance into something dark and broody and very Burtonesque. I’d also wager that it’s the strongest performance Depp has given under Burton, even though it’s ignored for being so obviously under the radar unlike other usual suspects (like Sweeney and Ed). As manic as he can go, there’s something that seems right in seeing Depp play the straight man before he turned into Jack Sparrow and whatnot and his performance is the thing that keeps us centred on the (dubious) reality of the strange world we’re experiencing.
True to Burton form, though, Sleepy Hollow is no one man show. Though I’m decidedly fond of his visual madness and I’d like to see Burton handle a straight dramatic ensemble, because he has a way with large casts. Miranda Richardson and Christopher Walken have a thing for showing up in long films to steal scenes (The Hours, Catch Me If You Can) and they work splendidly in the madness of Sleepy Hollow. Sleepy Hollow is a fable in the best of the sense and though I may not consider it as his greatest it’s up there with the good Burton films.
Is Sleepy Hollow proof enough that adaptations don’t make Burton any less inventive?