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Tim Burton's film, Sleepy Hollow, seems
based more on the short 1958 Disney cartoon than on the original, The Legend of Sleepy
Hollow, by Washington Irving, a short story from 1819, itself drawn from German
Irving's story created two memorable
images: a headless horseman, the ghost of a German mercenary beheaded in battle, and
Ichabod Crane, a gawky schoolteacher ("some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield")
who fervently believes in witchcraft. Both change significantly in the transition to
Burton's film. The horseman appears but once in Irving's story and he carries his head in
his hand. Burton has the horseman rampaging about the countryside, slicing heads off of
the living right and left, in search of his own head that he might return peaceably - and
whole - to the grave. But the horseman, in Burton's telling, is merely being manipulated
by another character in the story (which is as close to a spoiler as will happen here) and
becomes ancillary to a completely unrelated plotline, one that is absent from (and
unrelated to) the original work.
Burton transforms Ichabod Crane from
a comical and superstitious schoolteacher to a comely and supposedly rationally scientific
police inspector (Johnny Depp). The idea, suggested in an early scene, was to create
dramatic tension in the conflict between reason and superstition, but little is made of
it; Crane's scientific bent is quickly overpowered by the supernatural powers at hand.
Further, modern audiences would not likely accept a love interest between a
"scarecrow" Crane and the beauteous Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci).
So much for any thought that Sleepy
Hollow has even a hint of literary connection to Irving. What has Burton wrought here?
Sleepy Hollow is a beautifully and skillfully made film that seems like a cartoon
rendered with real-life actors. The multiple beheadings are sufficiently realistic to
frighten young children, but not realistic enough to frighten anyone more sophisticated
than that. As in most cartoons, the characters are caricatures and in a few of those,
Burton has hit a ringing satirical note: the foursome of the judge, the notary, the
doctor, and the minister. Variously self-important, pompous, or just plain weird, they are
a source of some fun ("Seeing is believing," asserts the one-eyed notary.).
But Crane and Katrina never become
more than caricatures, either, so we are left with a plot-driven (rather than
character-driven) story, a plot sufficiently twisty to confuse younger viewers and not
original or interesting enough to become more than a big ho hum for the adults. The script
attempts to develop some depth in Crane with a series of dreams which, though sometimes
offering great imagery (a game of blind man's buff played in a shower of falling flower
petals), turn out ot be little more than visual psychobabble. Suggestions of Christian
parable (e.g., stigmata on Crane's hands) are red herrings; they remain without basis or
meaningful development in the script.
Burton is reported to have picked up on this assignment after long and
fruitless work on another property that didn't work out. He has directed some interesting
films in the past (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands). Perhaps next time around
he'll wait for a worthy script with a genuine idea or two to which he can apply his
undeniable powers of imagination.
- Arthur Lazere