Beetlejuice Was Tim Burton's Anti-Spielberg Movie

There are certain directors with such a distinct style that when you watch their films, you just know it's their movie. You don't even have to look it up to check, the vibes are just that obvious. Take Wes Anderson for example. As soon as you see those symmetrical shots, art nouveau color palette, and Jason Schwartzman, you just know. The way a film looks contributes greatly to the way a film feels, and if you're a director with a major fanbase, you want to deliver on that particular feel that makes your movies shine. 

Perhaps two of the most well known directors who also have extremely well-developed styles in their films are Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. The worlds that Burton creates always feel like they're just slightly off-kilter from actual reality, and they have often been described as an example of "gothic suburbia." Spielberg, on the other hand, leans into the trope of suburbia as it is to create films that feel nostalgic and pure, even if the subject matter is slightly terrifying. You might find yourself wanting to live in a child's bedroom in a Spielberg film, whereas a Burton-created children's room feels more like a nightmare where the wooden pull-duck toy will eat you in your sleep.

But visuals aren't the only things that mark a director's movie as their own. It's also about their storytelling; the things they choose to highlight or avoid. When it comes to Burton, he loves to lean into the strange and macabre in a way that feels almost like falling into Wonderland. His career looks very different from that of Spielberg, and in an interview for Rolling Stone, he even goes so far as to say his 1988 masterpiece "Beetlejuice" is as anti-Spielberg as it can get. But just what does this mean exactly and why is it that you would never see E.T. hanging out with everyone's favorite bio-exorcist?

The typical Spielberg structure

To understand how "Beetlejuice" can be seen as "anti-Spielberg," we first have to discuss in depth what it is exactly that makes a Spielberg film a Spielberg film. I'm going to do my best Dawson Leery impression and explain just what that means. 

To watch a Spielberg film is to allow yourself to be immersed in nostalgia. Many of his movies have a strong focus on childhood ("Hook" and "E.T." to name some obvious contenders), and they often reflect some version of the all-American suburban youth, albeit with often-absent fathers. The houses these main characters live in are typically warm and inviting. Unfolded laundry and stacks of books and dishes clutter the tables and couches. Children's bedrooms look like quintessential kids' rooms with their toy action figures and baby dolls strewn about the floor. The palette always evokes coziness with the use of warm colors, and viewers are typically left with a sense of longing for their own childhoods.

Spielberg handles the nostalgia for youth extremely well because he knows exactly what he needs to do to tug on his viewers' emotional heartstrings. The inviting aesthetic of his films coupled with John Williams's sweeping, powerful scores really drive home the idea that to watch a Spielberg film is to be enveloped in a theatrical warmth like no other. Even if the movie isn't specifically about childhood, his films are still intoxicating in the way that they evoke empathy from their audience. 

That is the true beauty of many of Spielberg's films. Their message is always optimistic, often tied to family (with the exception of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Roy left those kids behind!), and occasionally looks to the supernatural for guidance. These are worlds where problems can be solved, even if they seem impossible. They make the audience feel empowered, and they instill in all of us an immense sense of hope. Life, not death, is to be treasured in a Spielberg film, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't felt moved by one of his movies. 

Beetlejuice: Anti-hero, anti-Spielberg

The same can probably not be said of Tim Burton's body of work. Like Spielberg, Burton has an interest in suburbia, but this interest is not one of warmth and nostalgia. By contrast, Burton's suburbias are always, dare I say, "strange and unusual," especially in "Beetlejuice." 

In the Rolling Stone interview, Burton said: 

"A lot of people have ragged on the story of "Beetlejuice," but when I read it, I thought, 'Wow! This is sort of interesting. It's very random. It doesn't follow what I would consider the Spielberg story structure.' [...] I was intrigued that there was no story." 

And for the most part, this is true. "Beetlejuice" tells the tale of recently deceased Barbara and Adam, who, in their attempts to scare away the new family that's moved into their house, end up befriending the young daughter Lydia — but not before they hire a crass, bio-exorcist named Betelgeuse to get rid of the Deetz's for them. Hijinks ensue, Harry Belafonte plays, arranged marriage almost occurs, and then everyone learns to live (or haunt) amicably side by side after all. 

But unlike a Spielberg film, viewers don't leave feeling uplifted or hopeful after watching "Beetlejuice," at least not in the traditional sense. Lydia is a child who is bored with her youth which is unlike a Spielberg movie where childhood is a magical time. The Deetz's house is cold and uninviting compared to the warmth of the homes often exhibited in Spielberg's films, and suburban life really just seems like a bore. Instead, it's the dead who invigorates "Beetlejuice" and bring it ironically to life, a far cry from Spielberg's recurring sentiment that life is precious. It's as if Burton took everything that makes a Spielberg film and did the exact opposite with "Beetlejuice." 

Still, "Beetlejuice" has a particular power of its own. It may not appeal to everyone, but it does provide a convincing alternative to the warmth of Spielberg's world. Here, death is not to be feared but rather celebrated, the strangeness of life doesn't always have to be explained or conquered, and we should never, never trust the living, no matter what.