30 Years Later, 'Beetlejuice' Remains Peak Michael Keaton

It's been too long, painfully so, since Michael Keaton got to be even remotely as funny and wild on screen as he is as the title character of Beetlejuice. Keaton has mercifully had a bit of a career revival in the last handful of years, having starred in two of the last four Best Picture winners (remember Birdman and Spotlight?) as well as getting to play the villainous Vulture in last year's Spider-Man: Homecoming. Though that movie represented a nice reversal of the days when Keaton played the Caped Crusader, Homecoming leaned more into the longtime actor's darker side.

So watching Beetlejuice 30 years (it hit theaters on March 30, 1988) later feels all the more shocking because it's a bracing reminder that, even when he was playing a darker-than-life character, Michael Keaton could be as funny as he was scary.

In general, it's a true blast from the past to watch Beetlejuice three decades down the line. Keaton, a year after this film, would work with director Tim Burton again on his first of two Batman movies. But while Batman and Batman Returns are radically different from Beetlejuice, many of Burton's recognizable choices as an auteur are present in the strange and quirky comedy, portending his further use of stop-motion, old-fashioned practical effects, and his requisite ability to blend the macabre and the madcap. When, for example, we see Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) try to escape their lofty old house after their death in a simultaneously funny and tragic car accident, they are beset upon in a creepy, sandy desert by a massive, striped snake-like sandworm that recalls the same kind of monsters audiences would see in The Nightmare Before Christmas a few years later.

Although the Maitlands are the protagonists and ostensible heroes of Beetlejuice, the star attractions are the film's quirky designs and sets and the manic performance from Keaton as the eponymous "bio-exorcist." Though Beetlejuice is initially hired by the Maitlands, he quickly becomes the film's scene-stealing villain. When we first meet Adam and Barbara, they live a fairly content life as a young married couple in a small New England town; all they want for is a child, but they're unfortunately robbed of that when they die unceremoniously when trying to avoid a dog near a rickety bridge. Upon realizing that they're now ghosts in their own house, they're disturbed to learn that they're too nice to scare off the next family that wants to move in, the snobbish Deetzes (Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara) and their kindly Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). No matter how hard the Maitlands try, the yuppie Deetz parents are too self-involved to notice things like a ghost tearing off her husband's head, and Lydia is too disaffected to be freaked out.

Enter Betelgeuse, as his tombstone states. Though the Maitlands are warned off from using the bio-exorcist by their chain-smoking case worker, they eventually are reduced to digging up his grave in the model town that Adam had built in his spare time after uttering his name three times. The wildness of Keaton's performance is heightened by the use of cartoon sound effects in these early moments; it's akin to an adult version of the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, as Beetlejuice jumps into and out of voices, costumes, and more in his attempts to impress, cajole, and weasel his way into the Maitlands' lives without ever leaving. (Granted, the Genie never said anything quite as profane as "Nice fucking model!" to Aladdin or Princess Jasmine.) The film ends with as happy an ending as possible: the Maitlands are able to triumph over Beetlejuice after he tries to marry the young Lydia, they and the Deetzes co-exist in the house, and Beetlejuice is stuck in a purgatorial waiting room next to other goblins and ghouls.

Though Beetlejuice has a pretty stacked cast, and is generally a funny film, it shares one important strand of DNA with Aladdin: both films only truly come alive with the arrival of a larger-than-life character who basically dwarfs everyone else in the film in terms of energy, wit, and more. Michael Keaton's performance here is unquestionably broad and outsized, but it's all the remarkable after three decades because there are so few other examples of that kind of fast-paced charm in his filmography. (Batman, predictably, offers a much different and more muted Keaton, except in that one brief moment when he faces off against the Joker and, in a very Beetlejuice-esque voice, aggressively asks, "You want to get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!") There's his supporting role in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, where his Dogberry feels at least as icky a character as Beetlejuice. Otherwise, to find a brashly funny Michael Keaton, you have to look to, perhaps fittingly, the world of animation.

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Say what you will about Cars (I'm far from its staunchest defender), but that movie offered, if only in sadly brief doses, a hint of the wild man we saw in Beetlejuice. There, Keaton voices the arrogant race car Chick Hicks, who serves as the closest thing to an antagonist in the laid-back, slowly paced Pixar film. Chick, who tries to have his own catchphrase to mirror that of his rival Lightning McQueen's "Ka-chow!", is a slightly more experienced car, but he's just as driven as the younger vehicle. (You see what I did there.) Chick desperately wants to top Lightning and supplant the King, an older car that's the current racing champion of the country. In the end of Cars, Chick wins the big race but does so at the cost of losing his reputation; by realizing that winning the race doesn't mean as much as he once thought, Lightning moves on to aid the King after a big blowout, while Chick is scorned by his old fans for his selfish ways. Chick had a different part to play in last year's Cars 3, but unfortunately, Keaton didn't return, having been replaced by animator Bob Peterson. His better Pixar part came a few years after Cars, anyway.

Though the demonic Beetlejuice is a far cry from a Ken doll, Keaton imbued the latter character with as much intense personality as the former in the 2010 threequel Toy Story 3, as well as the Hawaiian Vacation short released in the summer of 2011. When we first meet Ken, he's a happy-go-lucky toy at Sunnyside Day Care, being much more well-kept for than other, newer toys who are forced to be played with rambunctious toddlers. But when he falls in love with the Barbie doll who first appeared in Toy Story 2, Ken becomes more willing to fight for the underdog, but in a very...Ken fashion, which here means a fairly hollow and not-very-aggressive way. (The way that Keaton delivers the line, "Everyone listen! Sunnyside could be cool and groovy if everyone treated each other fair!" is a microcosm of his delightful vocal work.)

It would be extremely charitable to say that Keaton's work in either Cars or Toy Story 3 is the equivalent of his outsized performance in Beetlejuice, but there's something surprising about the fact that his work in a fairly well-loved movie that's held some level of fame over the last three decades didn't lead to more characters in the same vein. Why, in short, did it take Pixar to capitalize on his comic timing and abilities?

This isn't to say that Keaton's career suddenly became dull or unexciting after the moderate success of Beetlejuice. Though I would not place the Tim Burton Batman movies above the Christopher Nolan trilogy from recent years, Keaton's terse interpretation of both Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight was something of a standard-bearer for Christian Bale to live up to. After that, Keaton got to work with two of the best filmmakers of the 1990s while playing the same character, Ray Nicolette, in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. But while Keaton's in much more demand now than he was even a decade ago, it's a little disheartening to see so few Beetlejuice-esque characters on his resume.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the rumor mill from, every once in a while over the last few years, churning out suggestions that a Beetlejuice sequel is thiiiiiiiis close to coming into being. As a fan of the film, let me say: don't. I get the impetus, in that I get the impetus for a studio to go back into its library of older films and try to revive something that might make a ton of money at the box office. But as much as I like the first Beetlejuice, it's been so long since the original that returning to the character and his warped world would likely be more of a letdown than anything else. I imagine that a Beetlejuice sequel would, at most, reunite only Keaton and Ryder with Burton, in the same way that the animated series teamed up Beetlejuice and Lydia. While that may sound appealing — especially since both actors' careers have been on the rise lately, what with Ryder being involved in Stranger Things — returning to these characters after 30 years is more a desperate ploy to milk nostalgia for something strange as opposed to creating a genuinely strange thing. (Again, you see what I did there.)

Moreover, it's very hard to reconcile the Tim Burton on display in Beetlejuice with the Tim Burton making films like Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and more. (Such as his upcoming film, Disney's live-action remake of Dumbo...co-starring Michael Keaton. I shudder with dread at the thought of this movie; to be fair, I would do so with or without Burton at the helm, but his presence doesn't help.) Beetlejuice is an often cheerfully old-fashioned film, with its Ray Harryhausen-esque special effects, its practical sets, and its goofy depiction of city folks vs. country folks. The movies that Burton makes now are laden with computer effects, and to think of a version of Beetlejuice that's CGI-heavy and lacking in spirit or life is to be depressed anew at how Burton's career has shifted as he gets older.

Some films don't need sequels. Beetlejuice has retained its charms after three decades, and Michael Keaton's performance as the title character remains as acidic, unexpected, and hilarious, because he hasn't returned to that well as the character a lot of times since. That's not to say it isn't a shame that other filmmakers haven't tried to tap into Michael Keaton's innate comic intensity, but the fact that he only played the bio-exorcist one time makes this movie all the more special. Tim Burton, for better or worse, doesn't make movies like this anymore — its boisterous comedy feels like something of an outlier in the rest of his career — which also helps the film feel weirdly singular. Beetlejuice offers a glimpse into the morbid with a darkly comic sensibility, never better exemplified than when Michael Keaton is on screen, almost literally chewing up the scenery. Hopefully someone else figures that out and gives him another role of a lifetime.