Tim Burton’s “Hansel and Gretel”

At 10:30 on Halloween night 1983, the Disney Channel ran a 35-minute film version of Hansel and Gretel by then-unknown director Tim Burton. Live-action, and made for a reported $116,000 with a Japanese-American cast, it’s perhaps the most subversive retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale of child-cannibalism. After that single showing, Hansel and Gretel vanished from sight. It was rumored that the Disney organization was embarrassed by it, or Burton was, or both. The Burton Hansel and Gretel became an urban legend: Had it existed at all? It wasn’t shown in theaters, it wasn’t released on DVD, and as far as I can tell, it’s not to be found on YouTube. How rare is that, these days?

Hansel and Gretel finally resurfaced in 2009, at the MoMA showing of “Tim Burton.” It’s now at LACMA, running continuously in the galleries. With so much to see, it’s easy to pass by. But it’s the most ambitious film in the exhibition (and film, after all, is why they’re doing a Tim Burton show in the first place). Though LACMA is separately doing a film series of Burton’s big-budget films, Hansel and Gretel is the one film that even avid Burton fans haven’t seen. (Left, a cuckoo clock from Hansel and Gretel, also at LACMA).

In the early 1980s Burton was a Disney animator obsessed with Japanese culture. That apparently explains why most of Hansel and Gretel’s actors are of Japanese extraction. The wicked stepmother and witch are both played by a cross-dressing Michael Yama. There is a transformer robot-toy and some ninja martial arts action… but that makes more of the Japanophile joke than it deserves. Hansel and Gretel is the prototype nightmare Burton would keep remaking, a creepy universe of candy-coated evil and absurdly dialed-up dramatic irony. Completely lacking the gore kids are raised on today, it is subliminally far more disturbing. It’s also a comedy.

The gingerbread house of Burton’s witch is a marshmallow bungalow, bigger on the inside than from the outside. Poke the wall with a finger, or a ninja star, and delicious colored glop spurts out. The kids gobble it up, creating a drip painting, then a Paul McCarthy performance. Disney Channel viewers, from 4 to 84, already knew the awful plot: The witch was fattening up the children to eat them. Much of Burton’s movie consists of food-porn shots of the children gorging ecstatically on candy-color mush that is, to the viewer, completely revolting.

Hansel and Gretel eventually trick the witch into her own oven (which has a temperature setting for “Little Boy”: besides the obvious gag, the code name of the Hiroshima atomic bomb). The witch is incinerated, the children are reunited with their kindly father, and the transformer-robot spews coins. The family is rich! The celebratory shots of lucre are too much like those of the witch’s high-calorie treats, raising the question of how the happiness will end—for the kids or, gulp, for any of us?

The weirder-than-Adult Swim sensibility was evidently an uncomfortable fit at the Disney Channel. Disney tapped Vincent Price, star of House of Wax and the original, pre-Cronenberg The Fly, to do an introduction assuring viewers that the Burton film was a lot more normal than it is. Price converses with a menacing puppet while promising the TV audience that Burton’s fairy tale, like all others, will have a happy ending. That’s become crude slang for an orgasm, and it suggests just how discomforting Hansel and Gretel is.

Previous “Tim Burton” post here.

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