Everybody starts somewhere. "Beetlejuice," from 1988, was only director Tim Burton's second big-time theatrical project, following his success with "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" in 1986. "Beetlejuice" is the one that helped him gain access to "Batman" the next year, and the rest is history, as they say.
"Beetlejuice" is weird and unorthodox and innovative and clever, but the main thing is that it's funny, filled with amusing characters ranging from the absurd to the ridiculous. And it's all about ghosts, which have been a subject of mirth since the days of Bob Hope ("The Ghostbreakers") and Abbott and Costello ("Hold That Ghost") to "Ghost" and "Ghostbusters."
"Beetlejuice" is about a pleasant young couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), who live in a pleasant old Victorian house in a pleasant part of the New England countryside. Unfortunately for them, these pleasant people drive off a bridge one day and wind up as ghosts. Now, before you can say "Topper," these ghosts are not fun-loving or mischievous by nature. They find themselves imprisoned in their own house, and according to a book they find, "Handbook for the Recently Deceased," the only way they can move on in the spirit world is by getting rid of the home's new tenants.
The new owners are an uptight dad, Charles (Jeffrey Jones), his insufferably boorish, sculptress wife, Delia (Catherine O'Hara), and their death-obsessed teenage daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who is the only one who can see the ghosts. Lydia loves the ghosts because they are dead and because she sees in them people "strange and unusual" like herself.
Meanwhile, Adam and Barbara find the new family difficult to move out of their house. Part of the problem is that Charles and Delia are so wrapped up in themselves, they don't even notice the presence of ghosts; and the other part of the problem is that Adam and Barbara don't know the first thing about scaring anybody. They're much too proper and civilized.
On the periphery are some other curious characters: Otho (Glenn Shaddix), a snobbish, prissy, eccentric interior decorator; Juno (Sylvia Sidney), Adam and Barbara's spirit caseworker; Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet), Charles's boss; and Bernard (Dick Cavett), Delia's agent.
Most of all, though, there's Betelgeuse (or Beetlejuice), a weirdo ghost that not even the other ghosts of the underworld can tolerate. He attaches himself to Adam and Barbara as a "bio-exorcist," a ghost who can exorcise the living, promising to help them "adjust" to their new life (or death) by getting rid of the house's new owners for them. Michael Keaton plays Beetlejuice and throws himself into the role body and soul. He is so crazy, so bizarre, so filled with boundless energy that he pretty much steals the show from everybody else. Keaton did such a good, uninhibited job as the looney ghost, Warner Bros. gave his character a cartoon television show the next year (1989).
Now, here's the thing: When Burton made the film in 1988, it predated the age of elaborate CGI special effects, so he operated the old-fashioned way; he used makeup, costumes, masks, whimsical, often expressionistic set designs, stop-motion animation, and fancy lighting. You know what? It works. Yeah, like everybody else, Burton eventually moved on to computer graphics, but watching this movie, there's a lot one can say for doing things outside of blue screens.
Highlights of the film include scenes in the underworld, with a variety of freakish spirits; Danny Elfman's appealing theme music; segments using Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song" and "Jump in the Line"; and anything with Keaton in it.
"Beetlejuice" is not quite a comic masterpiece, and it's much shorter than I remembered, its ninety-two minutes whizzing by in a flash. But it is enormously entertaining, which is all you can really ask of most comedies.
Because the movie isn't very long and because there aren't many extras, Warner Bros. accommodate it on a single-layer BD25, using a VC-1 codec to reproduce the 1.85:1-ratio picture. The colors are bright and attractive, appropriate to a cartoonlike movie, and most of the high-definition image looks reasonably sharp, particularly noticeable if you compare it to the standard-def version, as I did. There is writing on the sides of moving vans that is barely legible in the SD edition, while in the high-def version it's clear as a bell.
Nevertheless, there is a small degree of grit and grain in the picture and an overall dark tone, which combine to produce a slightly rough, coarse appearance. This is the twentieth anniversary of the movie's release, after all, and WB make no mention of their having restored the picture.
In English you get the choice of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 or Dolby Digital 5.1, but the regular lossy track is the default, so remember to change it if you can decode the TrueHD. The lossless track has an excellent front-channel stereo spread; a smooth, natural midrange; a fine, delicate high end; and some occasional moments of deep bass and dynamic impact. Unfortunately, there isn't much going on in the rear channels except the merest touch of musical ambience.
The primary extras are three episodes from the 1988 animated "Beetlejuice" TV series in standard-def: "A-Ha!," "Skeletons in the Closet," and "Spooky Boo-tique." Each episode is in full-screen and lasts about twelve minutes. Next, there's a music-only track for those folks who may want to listen to the music from another room or something (OK, I admit I've never figured out a use for these music-only tracks). Then there's a bonus CD of music from the movie, including Danny Elfman's main titles, "The Family," "Sand Worm Planet," "The Aftermath," "Showtime!," and end credits, plus Harry Belafonte doing "The Banana Boat Song."
The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections; a booklet insert; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. A handsome slipcover with a holographic picture on the cover completes the package.
"Beetlejuice" is remarkably imaginative, with Burton pulling out all the stops in the creativity department and Keaton putting in one of his most memorable screen characterizations. That Keaton would follow this zany portrayal the next year with the complex and darkly troubled Bruce Wayne seems almost like watching two different actors. Why Keaton isn't a bigger star today than he is seems hard to figure.
In any case. "Beetlejuice" is inventive and funny, something that has eluded Burton for a while now. Maybe he should go back and look at some of his own movies occasionally for inspiration. I dunno.