WOMEN ARE WITCHES—or, at least, more in touch with Nature than men—in Tim Burton's thoroughly entertaining new treatment of the Washington Irving perennial. Nature is capitalized because Burton sets his tale at the millennial intersection between the late 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and the dawning of the Romantic era. It's 1799, and NYC policeman Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is dispatched to investigate a series of beheadings in a picturesque Hudson River School hamlet where superstition still reigns. He's a man of reason, yet priggish, pusillanimous, prone to fainting, and afraid of spiders. "To solve crimes we must use our brains and up-to-date scientific principles," he declares, represented by the totemic bag of ridiculous forensic instruments he lugs around.
directed by Tim Burton
with Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci
opens November 19 at Guild 45th, Meridian, Oak Tree, and others
Soon he's happily performing autopsies and looking for clues, much to the consternation of the locals. "This is most irregular," he's told, while the town's prosperous leading citizen, Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), hosts him under the same roof as his fetching daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci). She's a reader of "tales of romance" and other forbidden tomes. "Do you think me wicked?" she asks Crane, her white bosom opened to him like a flower. Uh-oh.
Yet there's hardly a trace of sex in Burton's elaborately stylized and coded view of the past. His Sleepy Hollow is made of other movies, like his patchwork dog in Frankenweenie or Depp himself in Edward Scissorhands. Burton casts his early scenes with character actors suggesting a particular horror-film sensibility—especially that of the English Hammer studio that churned out so many blood-soaked '60s horror flicks. It's wink-and-nudge cheesy, poke-you-in-the ribs gory, intended more to amuse than shock. So, while heads are repeatedly detached from every conceivable camera angle, the movie would only disturb the sleep of children.
NIGHTMARES PLAGUE Crane, however, who's tormented by visions of his mother, "a child of Nature" kindred to the alluring "white magic" he sees in Katrina. These dreams introduce an unwelcome '90s recovered-memory theme to Hollow's otherwise splendid artifice. Burton's on firmer ground without the cop's childhood traumas. Far better and funnier are the scenes of Crane's inept, cowardly investigation; he's like a paler, handsomer Inspector Clouseau with a pinched English accent. "I am pinioned by a chain of reasoning," he despairs, even as Katrina arouses his suspicion with her occult practices.
After plunging entirely into the supernatural, Burton largely abandons the rationalism-spiritualism debate that he perhaps spent too much time establishing. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he returns to the eye-popping special effects of Beetlejuice and lets his actors be in on the jokes—unlike the off-putting tone of Mars Attacks!, where you couldn't root for anyone.
In woods out of The Wizard of Oz, Burton piles on the beheadings, witches, and effects, even resorting to a good old-fashioned chase that plays like a Gothic Western. It's a fun movie; both Depp and Ricci seem able to wink at their mannered lines without breaking the spell of Burton's bell-jar world. Everything's constructed, but loose. Sleepy Hollow is a whodunit, and when the culprit finally delivers an amusingly long-winded explanation worthy of Dr. Evil, the audience knows that Burton is simply buying time for the inevitable ride-to-the-rescue.
Of course, in Irving's original 1819 tale, the woods still echoed with colonial unease at the darkness and evil within. Burton permits himself only one nonmainstream suggestion of their residual power, when tree roots spread like legs to reveal a moist red portal to Hell. The image jolts you out of Hollow's satisfying multiplex-ready entertainment. As certain demons finally return to the Underworld, you can imagine what carnality will take place below. But that's a different movie, and a different side of Nature.