It's one of the great experiences when watching a movie to come across a scene that has no business being written, shot, acted or not left on the cutting room floor, yet all of the crazy factors which should make it so quick to dismiss, just work. I had this experience last night when watching the much lauded, but perhaps still underrated, Beetlejuice from 1988.
The scene to which I am referring happens near the end of the first act. Beetlejuice lives the in the model city - literally a model, although its quaint demeanor should be duplicated - built by Alec Baldwin's character in his attic. The camera follows a fly, giant among the small buildings, as it lands on the polyurethane make-shift grass. Beetlejuice calls out to the fly from below the surface, enticing it to come closer. His final bribe to lure the fly to within his grasp is pulling out a giant, still wrapped, Zagnut bar. This is enough for him to grab the fly and take it down below the surface, presumably upon which to feast.
I was just dumbfounded by this scene, watching it as an adult. As a kid, it was just a fleeting gag. But as an adult, the process by which this was brought to life astounds me. Who wrote that thinking it would work? A giant fly? Beetlejuice enticing a bug to capture and eat? A Zagnut bar? This was written down, approved by a producer, sent to props to create, cost probably a day or two worth of filming, was professionally acted by grown men, lit, cut and put in the final product of a big budget movie. Yet, there isn't the slightest hint that the film should present us with anything different.
While I'd have to revisit his oeuvre to be sure, this is probably the best mix of all of the great elements Tim Burton can bring to a film - stylized visuals, zany characters and the sense of wonderment while staying internally consistent. My sense is that Burton has had misgivings in his later career about getting these elements just so, and has relied heavily on the animated medium, where his vision and all of the oddities that entails can be swallowed more easily.
But here, the macabre world of the dead allows Burton to playfully build his castles in the sand. And he does so with such effectiveness that when we see this ridiculous, implausible, laugh out loud, absurd moment of a fly being captured by a giant Zagnut bar, it feels so natural that we forget the process and think, "Of course, that's exactly how that would be."