In retrospect, Sleepy Hollow was the beginning of the end for director Tim Burton. While its successor, Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes remake, demonstrated that, without a doubt, a once-promising cinematic voice had been swallowed up by the Hollywood machine, Sleepy Hollow marked the moment when Burton’s style began to seem less like an artistic vision than an applied lacquer.
To be fair, it is, at least in the case of Sleepy Hollow, sumptuously beautiful lacquer, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Rick Heinrichs, whose contributions are awards-worthy. Burton gives them plenty to work with; Burton gleefully takes advantage of the narrative’s opportunities for visual conceits, following after the legacy of Hammer and AIP pictures (with the most explicit nods being given to Brides of Dracula and Pit and the Pendulum). However, if Sleepy Hollow is a visual feast, its visual antics feel curiously disconnected from the psychology and emotion of the piece.
This may be because Andrew Kevin Walker’s densely-plotted screenplay leaves little room for the type of free-wheeling characterization that suits Burton best. Burton has never been a particularly gifted narrative filmmaker. His best films excel at finding witty and brashly poetic ways to depict fractured psyches and identity conflicts in visual terms, following emotional throughlines rather than narrative logic. The closest the film comes to offering a traditional “Burton character” is twitchy, nervous Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), who has the air of the typical “Burton outsider,” but he ultimately just seems an assembly of pale face-paint, messy hair, and some odd quirks. The attempts to ground the character in a tragic backstory seem weirdly detached from the rest of the film, as though it was a story change that was imposed on an already-complete narrative, and it does little to inform the character or the film itself.
Now, Burton’s impish humor delivers some light laughs, and, even if they’re underused, the cast is crowded with remarkable talents (Martin Landau, Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Miranda Richardson among them), but they are insufficient to compensate for a film that has no true center. As such, Sleepy Hollow is far less compelling and memorable than the genre classics to which it pays tribute, films that explored their macabre stylizations with conviction and purpose.