In 1986, after years of work in animation, various other below-the-line contributions, and a pair of short films by his own hand, Tim Burton stormed onto the international filmmaking stage with his ’80s feature run of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman.
In just a few years, Burton made himself a household name, and one of the most unique and sought-after directorial voices in a Hollywood beginning to find itself overwhelmed by waves of homogenous, branded movies.
That’s not to pretend that Burton exists outside of the mainstream; nearly every movie in his first decade of feature-length work was released by Warner Bros., and he’s spent his decades as a notable industry presence working mostly within the studio system.
But thinking of Burton invokes images of the left-of-center, the unexpected, the strange and occult and ooky and delightful. Within that same studio system, one which has embraced franchise potential more with every passing year, Burton has made a career out of movies for the weird kids, the imaginative and idiosyncratic ones, of every age.
As Burton’s latest update of an animated classic flaps into theaters with Dumbo, we’ve taken a look at all 19 of the director’s feature-length films to date (most recent included), and from our favorites to those less so, the many ways in which Burton has come to define a particular kind of cinematic magic.
19. Dark Shadows (2012)
Runtime: 1 hr. 53 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee, Alice Cooper
The Pitch: The late-’60s Gothic soap opera goes Burton in this modern update, focused around centuries-old vampire Barnabas (Depp). After being cursed by the witch Angelique (Green) for spurning his advances in the 1770s, the onetime nobleman Barnabas is unearthed in Maine circa 1972, and seeks to reclaim his family estate and birthright in a world he no longer understands. Soon, however, the problems of the past catch up to him, between a young woman with an incredibly familiar face, a still-thriving Angelique, and that pesky curse that compels him to kill.
This is Halloween (The Burton Style): Dark Shadows is nothing if not distinctively Burton, but the film’s look offers an odd marriage of Burton’s lavish early-career feats of set design with modern CGI and the kind of visual gloss that’s characterized his latter-day Disney work. In the case of what’s ultimately one of his bawdier, meaner-spirited productions at large, it’s an odd approach to take. It carries too lighthearted of an air for its moments of genuine violence to connect, and while even some of the best movies on this list involve their own flourishes of dark comedy, the balance never quite connects here.
MBC (Most Burton Character): Eva Green makes her Burton debut here, and it’s such a kismet pairing of performer and filmmaker that she fits even the director’s weakest material like a glove. As Angelique, Green seems to have a better handle than anybody else onscreen about where to fit within the film’s confused mix of deathly consequences, playful sexuality, slapstick humor, ’70s nostalgia, baroque horror, and purposeful camp. Green gnaws on the scenery like the film’s depending on it, and it’s hardly a shock that her scenes are among the only ones where this movie full of undead people comes to any kind of life.
A Quick Word on Barnabas: Dark Shadows is a mess for several different reasons, but a sizable chunk of the blame ultimately lies with the leading turn around which its many eccentric vignettes are anchored. This is a Johnny Depp living in a post-Wonderland world, where the quirks and tics that earned him an Oscar nomination for Captain Jack Sparrow the first time around had already begun to curdle. After being encouraged with audience millions to dial them to 11 as the Mad Hatter, Dark Shadows sees that cloying, bumbling version of Depp inserted into a Tim Burton world, and he’s never looked less at home in one of the director’s movies.
Dropping the Hammer: One clear stylistic influence, on Burton’s body of work at large and here in particular, is the Hammer horror aesthetic. The mid-century British production company’s shadow of influence over latter-day horror filmmakers is long, and Burton in particular has invoked the looks of the company’s lustrously staged productions throughout his career. (This is his fifth film in which Hammer’s legendary Dracula, the late Christopher Lee, appears as well.) There are occasional flashes of that look throughout Dark Shadows, but Hammer made horror movies that played every emotion to the back of the house, whether fear or lust or repulsion, however much of a wink they included in their delivery. This is no Hammer movie.
The Verdict: Dark Shadows makes for rough sailing before long at all, which is unusual at a glance when you stop to consider the many ways in which it’s of a thematic piece with some of his best movies, some of the ones at the very end of this feature. But it’s a vision of filmmaker and star alike working on autopilot, the former leaning on familiarity and years of goodwill as the latter traded on his slurred charm to increasingly diminished returns. For a movie based on a camp classic, Shadows seems to fundamentally mistake its thudding comedy for camp at almost every turn.(It’s also aggressively un-fun at nearly every point for a movie so transparently chasing after camp appeal.) It’s the first time, and probably the only time, in Burton’s career that one of his movies feels totally empty beneath the decor.
18. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Runtime: 2 hr.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Kris Kristofferson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Paul Giamatti
The Pitch: Wahlberg goes bananas, as audiences went apeshit trying to make sense of this brooding take on Pierre Boulle’s sci-fi classic of chim-pandemonium. They’re damned. They’re dirty. They’re apes, and it’s their planet. And old Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) is stuck trying to find a way out.
This is Halloween: Erm, it’s dark? It’s, like, moody. Wait, that’s not visual. Hm. Yeah, Rick Baker’s make-up is excellent? It’s still too anatomically accurate to be an imaginative Burton thing. We’ve got nothing. This is well-budgeted “meh” in terms of the look, and Burton seems buried beneath the requirements of summer tentpole accoutrement.
MBC: Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari, a female chimp that defects from apes to help Captain Davidson – perhaps because she finds flinging with Marky Mark too hard to pass up – feels like a Burton variation. She’s emotional, intellectual, and a bit of an outsider. In a movie filled with costumes, make-up, and other bluster, Carter stands aside it all as an extremely amiable misfit.
New Direction After Direction: Ever wonder why this film felt so distinctly unlike Burton? Like a movie with a release date and gun-metal blue posters, devoid of stronger storytelling and bolder visuals? Gather around, children and trivia dweebs. Here’s a brief timeline of what transpired at Fox, Columbia, and possibly elsewhere:
— Adam Rifkin, of The Chase and Detroit Rock City, pitches an alternate sequel to the original 1968 film. It’s fast-tracked. Makeup guru Rick Baker is on board, Danny Elfman will compose. Tom Cruise might even star. Management changes. Fox passes.
— Peter Jackson pitches. Nothing.
— 1993. The property’s still at Fox. Oliver Stone and Sam Raimi are pursued to direct. Stone becomes an executive producer for a guaranteed $1 million. Arnold Schwarzenegger is signed to be Will Robinson. Seriously. Chuck Russell of The Mask almost lands the directing job. Philip Noyce of Patriot Games is eventually hired. Then he walks over, you guessed it, “creative differences.”
— Chris Columbus comes on, and then leaves.
— In 1996, Roland Emmerich is offered the chance to direct. Nope.
— James Cameron was courted during Titanic’s lengthy shoot. Titanic is then such a hit that he can walk away from directing a Planet of the Apes.
— Arnold leaves. Becomes the Eraser.
— Michael Bay turns the remake project down. Ouch.
— Peter Jackson turns the remake down.
— The Hughes brothers turn the remake down.
— February 2000. Burton’s hired. The movie shoots in October, and is released by July 2001.
In conclusion: art. And the director shuffle is still less difficult to follow than the actual film.
A Bad Bet: Wahlberg dropped out of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake for this shit. (Matt Damon swooped in, FYI.) And look, $3 million less at the North American box office for this over that. We should all be so lucky. But which movie’s now a cable mainstay, and which franchise was immediately re-booted again by the studio? Anyway, Wahlberg rebounded with Rock Star. :checks notes: Sorry, he did not.
The Verdict: It sucks. Want more? It’s gutless, soulless, convoluted, and puts Burton on an intensely short leash. There’s a lesson here in tracking your favorite directors, especially when they look like they’re in it for the money. These property-based gigs become burdens, and Burton himself doesn’t look back all too fondly on this project. And in the wake of Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves’ far more personal and assured visions, this take is just monkey business.
17. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman
The Pitch: A grown-up Alice finds herself in the Austenian predicament of marrying for security rather than love. More interesting, though, is the idea that Alice, who has been haunted by dreams of Wonderland throughout adolescence, must realize that these are memories and not nightmares (reminiscent of Hook) before she can restore order to Wonderland and save herself from a dismal future.
This Is Halloween: At one point, many would have loved to have seen Burton’s visual take on Carroll’s delightfully nonsensical realm. But that day had clearly passed by the time of this remake’s production. CGI can be Burton’s friend, but this scorched-earth vision of Wonderland feels painfully paint by numbers, robbing the land of all its charm and much of its wonder.
MBC: Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is meant to be Alice’s main ally and our connection to Wonderland, which works to an extent. Depp does manage to whip up some charm where there should be none. However, it’s Bonham Carter’s vile Red Queen and her misshapen, melon-sized head that comes to mind whenever we have nightmares about this film. There’s grotesque, and then there’s just unwatchable.
Page to Screen: Carroll’s novels are more or less a series of unrelated, nonsensical (and often dark) vignettes full of puns, poems, and linguistic chaos. For modern audiences who are used to and demand escalating, twisting narratives with exhilarating finishes, Alice offers today’s screenwriter virtually nothing to work with – something that becomes painfully apparent when watching Burton’s take on the classic. Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton pull characters and bits from both plot-thin Carroll novels before arriving at a Chronicles of Narnia remake, complete with prophecies, Depp’s Hatter as Mr. Tumnus, and a vorpal sword-wielding final battle against an evil queen, her Jabberwocky, and a deck of playing cards. It’s a narrative so slight that it threatens to float away even more so than Anne Hathaway’s Glinda-esque White Queen.
Soul for Hire: It’s not as though other directors haven’t cashed in on the opportunity to helm a major property or big studio tentpole, but it’s hard not to miss the Burton who brought his own worlds to life and was able to infuse even A-list franchises with some of his own energy. There’s just so very little heart or personality here.
The Verdict: Red flags should have been raised when Burton’s film began on a foggy London night, rather than a golden afternoon. At one point, Burton may have been the director or producer to bring the wonder of Wonderland to theaters. At this point in his career, however, a Tim Burton film can feel more like a film presented in the style of Tim Burton than one in which he bring his own worlds to life. When Carroll’s Hatter tells Alice that he doesn’t know the answer to his own riddle, she sighs: “I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” The same might be said about Burton taking on Alice.
16. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, Deep Roy, Christopher Lee
The Pitch: The starving Bucket family experiences a miracle when their scrawny, underfed son, Charlie, comes across a Golden Ticket, winning the opportunity to visit eccentric confectioner Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and change his family’s fortunes forever.
This Is Halloween: From the opening exterior shots of Burton’s film, we see a bleak industrial town with Willy Wonka’s factory looming tall above the Buckets’ home, a slanted shack that appears to be one stiff gust away from folding upon itself. Charlie goes to sleep each night staring through a hole in the house’s roof, no pane of glass separating him from the wind and snow or obscuring his view of the chocolate factory. In Roald Dahl’s novel, Charlie obsesses about the factory, inhaling the smells as he passes its gates each day.
In the film, we see that same obsession. Charlie decorates his room with candy bar wrappers, drawings of Wonka’s factory, and even a scale model made from irregular toothpaste caps his father brings home from work. Wonka’s factory, in plain sight, represents everything Charlie and the Buckets don’t have and likely never will — including enough food to survive. That visual ends up being more powerful than any that takes place in Wonka’s nutty factory.
MBC: It’s got to be Depp as Wonka, right? Agreed. Unfortunately, the movie never quite gets past what an off-putting performance Depp gives. If Gene Wilder’s Wonka was reckless and eccentric, Depp’s registers as outright creepy. From the Jacksonesque bleached complexion to the tittering social awkwardness, there’s nothing redeemable about this Wonka that moves audiences beyond the creep factor. That turn then makes it all the more tedious when Burton insists on leaving the source material in a cloud of chocolate dust to explore Willy Wonka’s childhood traumas.
Oompa-Loompa Doopity What?: Very little criticism of Danny Elfman will find its way into this Dissected, but it’s still hard to understand a damn word of any of these Oompa-Loompa songs more than a decade later. Kudos for adapting Dahl’s original lyrics, but these songs can’t hold a whangdoodle to the beloved numbers in Mel Stuart’s classic musical.
Steady Freddie: While Burton had worked with teens before, and even a man-child in a gray suit and red bowtie, Freddie Highmore’s performance as Charlie proved the director could get a crackerjack performance out of a true youngster. Dahl’s tale is ultimately about a poor boy who never wavers in trying to do the right thing, even as the spoiled brats of the world seem to always get their way. Sweet, thoughtful, and, yes, woefully malnourished-looking, Highmore’s Charlie couldn’t be more different from the grotesque Golden Ticket holders he meets at the factory, which makes him an easy hero for which to cheer.
The Verdict: Adapting a children’s novel that’s already been made into a beloved film paints a bull’s-eye squarely on the filmmaker. No doubt Burton understood this when he opted to bring his singular cinematic style to Dahl’s tale of a poor boy, an eccentric confectioner, and his fantastical chocolate factory. At the very least, Burton’s version remedies some of the concerns of Stuart’s classic version: Charlie once more becomes the titular character, Slugworth’s mission is thwarted, and the fizzy lifting heist, which partly decarbonates Charlie’s bubbling integrity, gets poured down the drain. Unfortunately, the film’s good intentions are quickly overshadowed by an incredibly creepy portrayal of Willy Wonka, tangents (like the chocolatier’s backstory) that steal from the story at hand, and, yes, a chocolate room that looks more nauseating than edible.
15. Frankenweenie (2012)
Runtime: 1 hr. 27 min.
Cast: Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine ‘Hara, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder
The Pitch: Sparky’s back, deader and better. Burton adapts and enlarges his 1984 Disney short about a resurrected Bull Terrier into a black-and-white stop-motion feature. What starts as a suburban parody of Frankenstein transforms into an all-out monster mash with vampire cats, Godzilla-sized turtles, and about a hundred other B-movie allusions reminding you just what Burton digs about film.
This is Halloween: It’s practically ripped from the margins of a daydreaming student’s notepad, that student being Tim Burton – the concept of Sparky, and the sketches for him, date all the way back to 1982. The stark, jagged, swirling lines. The rail-thin characters and scribbled textures. The Bauhaus and German expressionistic roots. A lot of references get thrown around to Burton’s love of exaggerated aesthetics, but if ever there was an heir to Edward Gorey, you’re looking at him.
MBC: Burton adored Vincent Price. The dulcet horror-meister inspired Burton’s first animated short, Vincent, a fetishistic dream about a young man who wants to be, yes, Vincent Price. Burton then lucked out and got Price not too long before the actor’s passing for Edward Scissorhands. With Frankenweenie, Burton offers perhaps his most excessive homage to Price yet with Mr. Rzykruski (Maritn Landau), a grade-school science teacher that looks like a Vincent Price nightmare, complete with the widow’s peak, long face, and tight mustache.
Burton Resuscitated: When Frankenweenie was announced by Disney, it came with a hilarious irony: the original short that Burton made for the studio, 28 years prior, had gotten him canned. Burton, who started in animation and drawing, was let go after the short (featuring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Burton) was viewed as a waste of resources by the Mouse House. Burton circa 2012, hot off a huge hit for Disney with Alice in Wonderland, was now deemed appropriately profitable. One hope this felt like a last laugh for him.
Dark Money: While Frankenweenie made its money back, at least globally, it got beat by both Burton’s Dark Shadows (released earlier in the year) and Laika’s similarly kid-spooky ParaNorman.
The Verdict: Frankenweenie wanders, wastes a fair amount of time before picking up, and feels like the definition of a director’s late-career feature. We get it. You probably painted your bedroom black, Mr. Burton. Your look is yours and yours alone. Only Wes Anderson garners more light mockery for being overbearingly obvious in both look and rigeur.
Yet Frankenweenie does eventually come alive, and evolves into a slap-happy sandbox for Burton to show off some of his old favorites. Throw in the crisp animation, some funny sight gags (a turtle growing to epic size because of a Miracle Gro accident is pretty great), and you’ve got something. It’s a Tim Burton love letter to Tim Burton’s loves.
14. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Runtime: 2 hr. 7 mins.
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson
The Pitch: Based on the 2011 young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, the story follows a young Florida stock boy (Butterfield) whose grandfather’s (Stamp) last words prompt him to follow the breadcrumbs of a supernatural mystery. Parsing out the clues left behind through his grandpa’s photographs and stories, he’s led to an abandoned orphanage on a fictional Welsh island, one filled with a host of children you might call, well, peculiar.
This is Halloween: Part of the problem with any post-2005 Burton production is that the filmmaker stopped chasing the “weird”, and the “weird” was instead now brought to him on a silver platter. Point to any of his later productions, save for maybe an outlier like 2014’s Big Eyes, and they’re all working from source material that he more or less stamped his name on with dollops of CGI.
Peregrine’s is a minor exception in that it feels as if Burton actually tried to offer his own expansions on Riggs’ prose. For one, the CGI is more refined, perhaps due to the advancement of the technology, but it’s also utilized in a way that feels more organic than in years past. The settings are bizarre yet palpable, and the creature designs are in tandem with his past horrors.
The entire “cold open” in Florida feels like a peace offering of sorts from Burton, as he dials back to the same claustrophobic fears of surburbia he realized to perfection in Edward Scissorhands. And that’s key when the film’s dull reality, much like the autumnal real-world settings of Big Fish, offers an essential contrast to the deep wonders ahead. That dichotomy alone had been missing for around a decade.
MBC: While Green’s titular Ymbryne headmistress clearly captures the post-2005 archetype for Burton, she’s actually kind of dull as a figurehead, dissolving in and out of scenes with the same kind of chilled stoicism that turned Helena Bonham Carter’s work with him into a punchline. However, Jackson’s villainous Mr. Barron delights as the shape-shifting leader of the Wights and Hollows.
He’s doing his own thing, but his wicked transformations and aggressive demeanor suggest he’s also thumbing through the Book of Keaton. He’s Beetlejuice, but if Beetlejuice wanted to eat Lydia Deetz’s eyeballs, and there’s a whiplash energy to the way he tumbles in and out of this story that feels more old-school Burton than his more recent antagonists.
The Deathly Hollows: And how! Look, it’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking it’s a knockoff of Harry Potter — toss in a little X-Men and the aforementioned Big Fish and voila — but these otherworldly creatures are legitimately terrifying. No shade to J.K. Rowling, but these Hollows actually have a bite — literally. Watching them crawl out of nothing is chilling, to say the least.
Granted, their faceless terror sparks immediate comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and even John Irvin’s Ghost Story, but they insist upon a delectable kind of gothic horror that Burton seemed to have locked up in the attic. Even in broad daylight, such as when Peregrine takes down a stalking Hollow outside the house with a crossbow, they’re beyond unnerving.
Miss Peregrine’s Rave for Peculiar Children: Also unnerving is when Elfman sub-ins Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson pivot from the traditional orchestral fare to something you’d hear at, say, Ultra Music Festival for the carnival finale. It’s admittedly a pointed attempt to show they’ve been ushered from the ’40s into the mid-aughts, but still. Bad idea jeans.
The Verdict: What ultimately hurts Peregrine’s is the story itself. Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman take far too long to actually get to the conflict, spending a good hour building a world that doesn’t seem to require that much time. And yet, even after spending over a half of the film’s runtime with its ensemble of peculiar children, they still feel more peculiar than familiar.
But thematically, this one is actually quite affecting. Burton’s contending with some feelings of his own, and you can sense it in the film’s relationship to the real world at hand. We’re a society that’s moved on from the imaginative, mostly by way of society’s own dull distractions, and the way we find that spark of creativity through a lesson in grief is where Burton comes out on top.
13. Dumbo (2019)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins
The Pitch: The once-fabulous Medici Bros. Circus has fallen on hard times, as have circus brats Millie and Joe Farrier, who struggle to hold their small family together as their grieving, trick-riding father returns from WWI a shadow of himself, coping with the losses of his wife and his left arm. Little do circus owner Max Medici and the Farriers know that the guide who will show them the path out of the doldrums is a flying baby elephant with colossal ears and a bigger heart.
This Is Halloween: Consider Edward Bloom and Karl the giant’s stint in Amos Calloway’s traveling circus in Big Fish a trial run for this far more immersive manifestation of Burton’s big-top imagination. From the gorgeous details of the circus train cars to the high-flying spectacle found inside and above the circus ring to the dignity with which the performers in the freak show carry themselves, Burton clearly feels as at home as anywhere else when creating magic under a big-top tent. Almost makes you wonder why he didn’t stick around for Big Top Pee-wee.
MBC: The fact that Danny DeVito plays a grubby, but ultimately goodhearted, ringmaster for the second time in Burton’s filmography might lead one to cast their ballot in his direction, but let’s not forget (because they never do) about our feather-snorting, jumbo-eared, little pachyderm pal, Dumbo. Burton has fashioned a career out of highlighting the humanity and value of those who are different, and there’s no doubt that Dumbo is the elephant and outsider of the hour in this movie.
All the Right Winks: With so little plot from which to draw in the original 1941 Dumbo, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger don’t spend much time nodding to the animated classic. (Blink and you’ll miss Timothy Q. Mouse altogether.) But when they do decide to reference the original, it’s done in loving and charming fashion: Mrs. Jumbo’s trunk cradling Dumbo through the bars of her captivity, Casey Jr. being called upon to haul the Medici Bros. Circus from town to town, and even a pink elephants-on-parade homage that won’t lead to nightmares. And, as you might have guessed, Jim Crow has been officially retired.
Did Disneyland Just Get Torched?: From its many fantastical worlds to its unmistakable allusion to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress attraction, big dreamer and bigger jerk V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland amusement park can’t be seen as anything but an even flashier and shinier Disneyland. So, that raises the question: Did Disney just pay Tim Burton a shitload of green to turn the happiest place on Earth into a symbol of empty, manipulative corruption?
The Verdict: Nobody will mistake Dumbo for Burton’s more inspired fairy tales. Rest easy, Eds Bloom, Wood, and Scissorhands. Disney hired Burton to breathe life and some of his trademark quirk into one of their classic properties, and the results should be enough to please general audiences and the director’s fans alike, even if the movie can be painfully predictable and has all the subtlety of Dumbo’s ears. Here, Burton creates a sad, beautiful, and believable world and leaves enough heart on the screen for smiles, tears, and tenderness. And that’s nearly every bit as good as seeing an elephant fly.
12. Big Eyes (2014)
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur
The Pitch: Margaret (Adams) needs out. Trapped in a marriage to a callous husband, she packs her beige suitcases, grabs her loving but weary daughter (Raye, then Arthur) by the hand, and heads out into the technicolor world. While sketching children in her characteristic big-eyed style at a street fair, she meets charismatic hack Walter Keane (Waltz), who swoops in to save the day. Soon the big-eyed paintings are taking the world by storm, turning off art critics and delighting the public. But Margaret soon discovers that when people see the name Keane at the bottom of her paintings, they’re assuming the name is his — and Walter has done nothing to discourage, and a lot to encourage, the mistake.
This is Halloween: The most striking thing about Big Eyes is how frequently it doesn’t look at all like a Tim Burton movie. The candy-colored suburbia of Edward Scissorhands is glimpsed, some tricky lighting and unusual perspectives as well. But when Big Eyes drops into Margaret’s P.O.V. from time to time, that’s when the Burton really comes out. While the film has its other failings, these brief flashes of something fantastical — of the artist’s vision, of pure emotion pooling in the face — anchor it to her vision, and to Burton’s. And beyond that, it’s cool.
MBC: Again, Big Eyes is something of an outlier, so while Big Eyes undeniably belongs first and foremost to Amy Adams, it’s Christoph Waltz and the narrating Danny Huston who feel like familiar Burton characters. Waltz’s cartwheeling energy is here converted into mean-spirited delusion; it’s a horrorshow. Huston plays the familiar smirking, conniving ne’er-do-well and power-chaser seen in so many of of Burton’s films, though in a manner considerably more subdued than other such performances.
Seriously Though, Amy Adams is Very Good At Her Job: Big Eyes never quite decides what kind of movie it is, but whatever else it might be, it is still an Amy Adams movie. Those are usually pretty darn good.
Even Elfman Puts It On: In a certain light, Big Eyes can be seen as a movie about an artist of boundless authenticity forced to hide her contributions, while a hack pretends to be something he’s not, all made by people trying something new to results of varying success. It feels like Burton pretending to be a filmmaker he’s not, telling the story of a woman silenced by often focusing on the man who did the silencing. There are layers, good and bad. Even frequent collaborator Danny Elfman gets in on the act; the longtime Burton composer writes here as though he’s cosplaying as Thomas Newman. The music is often lovely, but it doesn’t feel right — and that’s true of much of the film.
The Verdict: This decidedly mid-tier Burton outing is nevertheless worth a look for several reasons. First, and most obviously, there are very few things Amy Adams does that aren’t worth watching. Second, as a step outside the usual Burton wheelhouse (especially later Burton), it’s fascinating. And third, it’s a story worth hearing. Burton’s fascination with waiflike, ghostly-pale blondes continues here, but Margaret Keane is a real person; you’ll see her sitting quietly on a bench in a park in an early scene while Adams reenacts moments from a painful, then peaceful life. Hers is a story worth hearing, told because it’s a larger and more famous example of the violence, emotional and otherwise, that can exist behind closed doors. Walter chases off Margaret’s only friend (Ritter) because he’s an ass, but also because his success hinges on her isolation and domination. Her quiet climb back to the thrilling independence of those early moments deserves witness.
11. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Runtime: 1 hr. 56 min.
Cast:Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, Laura Michelle Kelly, Ed Sanders
The Pitch: I’ll let Stephen Sondheim do at least some of the talking here:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet street
Now I’ll chime in:
He used to be a nicer guy
But Alan Rickman was so sly
He shipped Todd off across the sea
In hopes of stealing his wife and baby
And now Todd’s back and out for blood
That Sweeney Tudd (sorry)
The demon barber of Fleet street
He meets a gal who makes bad pies
It’s HBC, and she’s so wise
She figures out a deadly scheme
For his revenge and her lousy cuisine
And yes I know that that’s slant rhyme
It’s not a crime
Uh, the demon barber of Fleet Street
This is Halloween: Sweeney Todd is missing some Burton trademarks — not much in the way of rounded, lumpy creatures of menace and/or pathos — but with the help of exemplary costume designer Colleen Atwood, it’s otherwise peak Burton. Sweeney Todd, one of the great American musicals, is essentially an opera, with an epic emotional scope that springs directly from the inner lives of of characters who are often keeping things pretty close to the vest. That makes it in some ways a perfect fit for Burton’s more grandiose tendencies, and Atwood in particular uses them to great effect, using the lace, stripes, black and white, and comic shapes to speak to what the characters are experiencing, even when they’re composedly lying.
MBC: Burton’s golden boy does the latter-day Depp thing here, all big crazy eyes and sneers and mugging. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It serves as a microcosm of Burton’s take on Todd as a whole, a blend of effective excess and maddening lack of subtlety in one frustrating performance. Oh, and that goes double for Depp’s rock vocal and Burton’s decision to make the movie at all — sure, he can sing it, sort of, but wouldn’t it have been better to just hire someone who should?
The Worst Pies in Cinema: Things that feel vital and immediate on stage don’t always translate well to the screen, and that’s certainly true of some of Sweeney Todd. Listening to 1979’s original cast recording, featuring Len Cairou, Angela Lansbury, and Victor Garber, is frequently a scarier and more moving experience. But film has one big advantage, and it’s one of which Burton takes full advantage: You can make stuff very, very gross on screen. On stage, the showstopping “The Worst Pies In London” is much, much funnier, and with all due respect to Helena Bonham Carter, infinitely better sung:
But the bugs and stuff are mostly there for comic effect. While Carter’s take is considerably more subdued — a choice that makes some jokes land in a new and interesting way, and bypasses others entirely — it’s significantly more revolting.
The same is true of every fountain of blood, thudding corpse, and head in flames. On stage, Todd is emotionally visceral. On film, it’s stomach-churning.
Oh Look, Another Angelic, Pale, Big-Eyed Blonde: We’ll say this, though: both Laura Michelle Kelly (a highly successful British musical theater performer) and Jayne Wisener can really sing. Hell, as Anthony, Jamie Campbell Bower — now playing the young Gellert Grindelwald, a.k.a. Young Depp, in the Fantastic Beasts franchise — meets all those criteria as well.
The Verdict: Sweeney Todd could have been a lot worse. The music is really difficult, and Burton and company had an invaluable resource in conductor and music supervisor Paul Gemignani, a longtime Sondheim collaborator who worked on the original Broadway production of the musical. Some of the cast pulls it off! Some manage to make it work in spite of not being quite suited to it vocally (looking at you, late/great Alan Rickman). And Sondheim’s music often lends itself well to people who can handle the musicianship, even if they don’t sound amazing — his work is so character-focused that as long as the acting is good and the music sound, it doesn’t need to (and sometimes shouldn’t) sound pretty. Rickman, Baron Cohen, Spall, and mostly Carter fall into that category, and the performances are largely good to excellent, set against an enchanting and upsetting London designed to haunt one’s dreams.
There’s a notable omission in that list, however. To be frank, Depp’s inability to sing some of this remarkable score isn’t a total deal-breaker (though ask another Sondheim diehard and they might say different). No, the issue is that Depp’s broad, cartoonish, over-the-top performance couldn’t be more poorly suited to the source material. This is a thriller, essentially, with clues laced throughout the music that instill a creeping sense of dread linked to a blended sympathy for and abhorrence of the villainous protagonist. To achieve that blend, you have to care about the man, and understand why he does what he does. Only that allows the tragedy to really land. Depp doesn’t even really make the attempt. There are glimpses here and there, but this is Jack Sparrow: Demon Barber Edition. The affectation is king, and that makes Todd a fundamentally and fatally flawed adaptation. Not the worst adaptation in London, perhaps, but good, no.
10. Corpse Bride (2005)
Runtime: 1 hr. 17 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy
The Pitch: On the eve of his arranged wedding, the shy Victor Van Dort (Depp) flees into the woods to practice how to spend the rest of his life with the equally shy Victoria (Watson), who he’s just met. But while working through his proposal, he slips a ring onto a branch that winds up being the finger of the Corpse Bride, or Emily (Bonham Carter), the ghost of a young woman who was slain on the night of her own elopement by an unknown stranger. Soon Victor has to save himself from an eternity of marriage in the underworld, while Victoria is tasked with convincing the townspeople that he’s been accidentally bethrothed to a dead woman.
This is Halloween: After his production credit on James and the Giant Peach, and the much bigger one on The Nightmare Before Christmas that led to him being regularly mistaken for the film’s director, it was only a matter of time until Burton tackled the world of stop-motion animation. It’s almost surprising it took him until 2005 to get there, but Corpse Bride is rife with the morbid humor and fanciful details that have defined so much of his best work. As the director’s post-2000 work goes, it’s one of the most recognizably Burton.
MBC: For as easy a choice as it might be, it’s Emily, and by a landslide at that. Bonham Carter is effortlessly charming in the role, bringing a similarly chipper approach to Emily’s circumstances as the one she’d employ in Sweeney Todd not too long thereafter. There’s a yearning to Emily’s plight that the shortest movie in Burton’s filmography doesn’t quite develop in full, but Bonham Carter does great work at fleshing (heh) Emily out as a more realized version of Nightmare‘s Sally, yearning for a devoted love beyond her circumstances. She also keeps losing parts of her body as a gentle gag, and what’s more Burton than that?
…Like Clockwork: Many stop-motion feature films have used the method of replaceable mouths and heads to invoke certain common expressions and speed up the frame-by-frame animation process. Corpse Bride, by contrast, allowed its animators to adjust each figurine’s clockwork heads, in minute fashion, one image at a time. It’s absolutely impressive, and requires a kind of personal discipline that gave most of us at the CoS offices chills just thinking about it. This movie is only 77 minutes long, sure, but it took Ben Wyatt almost a week just to get his figurine out of bed. Imagine fine-tuning this thing.
The Spirit of Collaboration: Here, and so far for the only time in his career, Burton worked with a co-director in Mike Johnson, which presumably had something to do with the fact that the production lasted over a full calendar year and involved an unimaginable number of tiny moving parts and untold scores of crew members tending to them. It’s still distinctly a Burton project from head to decomposing toe, but Johnson’s work on the physical, onscreen side of things stands out as a particular accomplishment, making the film one of the more densely layered stop-motion outings at feature length to date.
The Verdict: Corpse Bride obviously isn’t the first Burton movie that comes to mind for virtually anybody, but a reappraisal absolutely accentuates the film’s modest charms. The animation is the centerpiece here, and Burton’s first proper crack at the subgenre is packed with the kind of rich detail that some of his best live action work manages. The story is modest, and really more of a parable in the classic Disney animation vein than anything, but what stands out now is the delicacy. During a period when Burton was preparing to go the darkest he ever had on screen, and then the most conspicuously mainstream following that, Corpse Bride feels like a charming collection of B-sides from his earlier years.
09. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Pam Grier, Tom Jones
The Pitch: The Martians are coming! After a small farm community makes first contact with UFOs, a United States government full of Strangeloveian blowhards decides that it’s time to roll out the literal red carpet for our intergalactic neighbors. However, when they arrive, it’s clear that they don’t come in peace; they fry the doves and roughly a third of the film’s primary cast on the spot. Soon it’s every movie star for themselves in a race against time to stop the hideous, green-brained Martians from taking over the planet.
This is Halloween: Burton’s always been interested in the minutiae of mid-century modernist Americana, and the garish and kitschy looks so often associated with it. He’s indulged that interest in the service greater thematic impact elsewhere, but Mars Attacks! offers a double-barreled blast of all things colorful and Burton. From the playful stunt casting to the Vegas setting of some sequences to the all-retro look and feel, this is the most Tim Burton version of an auteurist passion project imaginable.
MBC: A cheat though it might be, we have to go with the aliens. To betray this writer’s age for just a second, Mars Attacks! was an absolute sucker punch if you happened to be a kid when it came out at the end of 1996. Just a few months earlier, Independence Day became a massive hit and introduced a generation of youths to its tentacular monsters. We were thus duped into assuming that Burton’s Topps-card creatures couldn’t hold a candle. And then they started frying human beings all the way down to the bone. And then we screamed, as our parents wondered exactly what kind of comedy they’d paid for the family to see.
The point is, the aliens are an outstanding and woefully slept-upon accomplishment in Burton’s body of work. They’re disgusting, their yammering is simultaneously hilarious and unsettling, and the opera of exploding heads that concludes the film is still one of the best things the director’s ever done with computer animation.
Retro-grade A: To return to all that business about Topps cards for a second, Mars Attacks! is one of the most liberal adaptations of source material ever committed to film, in no small part because the source material was a series of novelty trading cards. Five of the film’s six story credits are attributed to the creators of the card series, which leaves Burton and screenwriter Jonathan Gems a wide berth to indulge all of the filmmaker’s weirdest impulses. There’s always been a wry randiness underlying some of his best work, particularly in the ’90s, and Burton cuts loose with the entendres here. It’s tough to call to mind someone who’s taken more pleasure in ribbing the uptight ’60s suburbs as a general motif throughout his entire millennial film career, and on that basis, Mars Attacks! is something of a personal opus for Burton.
It’s Not Unusual: Speaking of youth nostalgia, Mars Attacks! also introduced countless irreverent young Americans of the time to one Tom Jones, and to the legacy of cornball Vegas singers working the horned-up aunt circuit, then and now. There’s no other point here, aside from the fact that some weird kid, somewhere out there, got really into Tom Jones in elementary school as a direct result, and we hope they’re flourishing today.
The Verdict: Mars Attacks! is such a weird choice for this phase of Burton’s career, but there’s a sweetness to the fact that Burton achieved the clout that other directors throughout Hollywood history have used to stage grandiose epics or take on the great unadaptable tales of literature, and cashed it in on putting a host of A-listers and roadshow kitsch legends into a goofy, inexplicably violent sandbox at feature length. The joke doesn’t always hold up (if ever a movie could achieve near-perfection by trimming 15 minutes, there’s a case to be made here), but it’s still a thoroughly fascinating immersion into what makes Tim Burton laugh.
08. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Runtime: 1 hr. 45 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Christopher Walken
The Pitch: There’s trouble afoot in the fog-shrouded Dutch hamlet of Sleepy Hollow – several prominent townspeople have been found with their heads inconveniently separated from their bodies. Police constable Ichabod Crane (Depp) is sent to the town to solve the mystery, falling in love with the heiress Katrina (Ricci) and running afoul of the deadly Headless Horseman (Walken).
This is Halloween: With its gnarled, Hammer Horror aesthetic, Sleepy Hollow feels like the quintessential look for a Burton film. Desaturated greys and golds flood the frame, torch-lit figures in pale makeup and flowing Victorian garb making for Burton’s most Literally Gothic film to date.
MBC: While it’s tempting to nominate Depp’s foppish flibbertigibbet Ichabod Crane for this spot, it’s impossible to watch Sleepy Hollow’s flashback to the tragic backstory of the Headless Horseman (a wordless Walken sporting some nasty pointed teeth) and not be reminded of other Burton outsiders like Edward Scissorhands. Sure, he’s the villain of the piece, but these little moments of sympathy complicate his cursed nature in the context of Burton’s filmography.
This Is Ichabod Crane, I’m Listening: Depp’s Ichabod Crane isn’t one of his most iconic characters – he’s basically playing variations on his previous weirdos – but it’s strange to consider just how … normal Crane is in the pantheon of Burton-Depp roles. He’s talkative, to be sure, and filled with more tics than a mangy dog, but he’s otherwise got a good head on his shoulders (pun very much intended). In the spectrum of Quirky Depps, Crane isn’t all that bad.
The Horseman Cometh: At every turn, Sleepy Hollow feels like a glorious, blood-soaked throwback to the Hammer horror films of yore. Great care is clearly taken to recreate the canted angles and Victorian settings of those pictures, but with all the modern might of big stars and even bigger budgets. Burton even casts former Hammer stars (Christopher Lee) and English actors that seem like they should be in Hammer films (Michael Gambon, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough) in prominent supporting roles.
The Verdict: Sleepy Hollow feels like the midpoint between Early and Late Burton: a bridge between his stranger, more intimate, and most assured work, and the sprawling studio fare he’d craft for most of the 21st century. It’s clearly made with love for its influences, but also distills the Washington Irving short story into an accessible horror-chase movie with a traditional, big studio love story at its core. Here, Burton’s Gothic quirks start to feel a bit more mannered, put on because they’re expected of him. Even so, Sleepy Hollow remains a solid, well-structured thriller with heaps of personality.
07. Batman (1989)
Runtime: 2 hr. 26 min.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl (Arli$$ himself!), Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
The Pitch: The Caped Crusader (Keaton) faces his greatest challenge yet – inquisitive photojournalist Vicki Vale (Basinger), who’s determined to unmask the World’s Greatest Detective. Meanwhile, a local mob lieutenant (Nicholson) faces dramatic changes following a horrible accident.
This is Halloween: Sam Hamm’s opening lines of his 1989 screenplay describe Gotham as if “Hell erupted through the pavement and built a city.” Burton’s Gotham City feels like the definitive version of Bruce Wayne’s hometown, looming statues and Art Deco storefronts studding the skyline, while wet, smoky city streets snaked between them. Whereas Returns’ city is far more brutalist and fascist, the first film saw set designer Anton Furst crafting a grim, pitch-black playground for the Dark Knight to play in.
MBC: Ironically, Nicholson’s Joker has more than a bit of Beetlejuice in him, a Puckish figure of terror who plays with his prey before striking. Nicholson’s outsized performance, paired with that terrifyingly realistic Cheshire cat grin, makes him one of Burton’s most iconic freaks.
Come on, Let’s Get Nuts!: Looking back at Keaton’s take on Batman, it’s an unusually reserved performance, intense eyes peeking through a cowl so stiff he couldn’t turn his head in the suit. But as Bruce Wayne, Burton let Keaton shine, playing the billionaire playboy with one arm in a straightjacket. By the time he flips out in front of the Joker, and screams the title of this segment, we finally see the devil with whom he dances in the pale moonlight.
Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys? Of course, Batman changed the look of the iconic DC superhero, as well as a lot of his patented gadgets. It was here that Batman’s basic aesthetic began to take on a black-and-yellow look, one grounded in rubber-molded armor instead of wrestling tights. The Batmobile took on a new look as well, resembling more of an elongated Cadillac sent through the gates of Hell, complete with all the grappling hooks and ziplines he could use to foil the Joker.
The Verdict: Looking back on Batman, the film that would turn Burton from a quirky comic filmmaker into an A-list blockbuster titan, it feels downright quaint in its baroque campiness. Granted, Returns tends to solidify that reputation, but Burton’s first lays a lot of the groundwork for infusing the action-packed superhero genre with his own macabre sensibility. Elfman’s triumphant theme is one of the catchiest leitmotifs in film history, and Nicholson still makes one hell of a villain. It’s easy to overlook this one in context of Burton’s full body of work, but its impact on the superhero genre – and Burton’s career – can’t be ignored.
06. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Cast: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, and Judd Omen
The Pitch: Nothing in the world means more to Pee-wee Herman (Reubens) than his bright red bicycle. He loves it. He rides it everywhere. He cherishes it like family. That’s why his life turns upside down when someone steals it right from behind his back (and underneath a dozen locks). Sent into turmoil, Pee-wee hits the road in search of his best friend, stumbling into a bizarre mystery that stretches across the nation.
This is Halloween: Although he had already turned heads with his spirited short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, Big Adventure marked Burton’s first foray into feature filmmaking. However, it’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg situation, seeing how the quirky characters and stories all come Reubens, whose Pee-wee stage show had already been winning over the alternative comedy scene for half a decade.
Even so, there’s no debating Burton’s presence, especially in a number of the larger-than-life segments. Pee-wee’s nightmare serves as a prelude to everything he’d put onscreen in his 1988 followup Beetlejuice, the barren surrealism of the many roadside attractions prompt his subtle American commentary in Mars Attacks!, and his predilection for ’50s motifs more or less paved the way for Edward Scissorhands.
MBC: “On this very night, 10 years ago, along this same stretch of road in a dense fog just like this. I saw the worst accident I ever seen. There was this sound, like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building … and when they finally pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck. It looked like this…!”
Burton Meets Elfman: Although he only had a single film credit to his name (1980’s Forbidden Zone) Burton tapped then-Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman to score Big Adventure, tipping off one of the most iconic director-composer pairings in the history of filmmaking. That’s not hyperbole. Even now, it’s impossible to imagine the two separated — and, as we know now, they have over the years. They simply share the same DNA.
Looking back at Big Adventure, the two truly found their respective identities by leaning on each other. Elfman’s grand suites, cascading with tendrils of piano scales and carnivalesque brass, only amplified Burton’s tall tale imagery. But like so many ’80s acts, Elfman also operates in the lows, and it ended up being those twinkling bells and anxious strings that helped cement what “Burtonesque” means. And they did it right out of the gate.
I Love the ’80s: Even though Burton’s films tend to eschew the confines of any specific time period — he’s a little like David Lynch in that respect — there are very few time capsules of the ’80s more apropos than Big Adventure. That’s mostly because Reubens had amassed a cult following of influential talent within his Groundlings circle, from Phil Hartman to Jan Hooks, who would both hallmark the decade on SNL.
But really, take a look around. The ’50s nostalgia. The commercialization. The ’70s carryover in James Brolin. For Christ’s sake, Pee-wee literally stumbles into a music video shoot for Twisted Sister. (Probably their best song, by the way.) That’s all without calling out Elizabeth Daily’s entire aura as Dottie, whose Material Girl aesthetic seems tailored by the editors of Smash Hits or Just Seventeen. It’s wonderful.
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU CAN SHARE WITH THE REST OF US AMAZING LARRY???
The Verdict: There’s a timeless innocence to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that has allowed the film to endure over the years. Unlike, say, Pee-wee’s Playhouse or any of the sequels, you don’t really need to love the titular smart ass to adore the film. The world around him, which Burton designs with boundless DIY imagination, is more than enough to suck you right in. Each sequence is a marvel unto itself, more bizarre than the last one.
Yet there’s also something to be said about the story at the center of it all. Pee-wee’s plight is incredibly affecting, but especially as a young child, when we don’t necessarily realize that the things we cherish or adore can taken from us. In some respects, it’s a subtle lesson in mortality, taken to another level by its juxtaposition against its warped vision of American life, one that gets weirder and weirder as the decades pile up.
For Burton, it’s his purest distillation of movie magic.
05. Big Fish (2003)
Runtime: 2 hr. 5 min.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, Marion Cotillard
The Pitch: With his storytelling father, Edward Bloom, on his death bed, estranged son Will returns home determined to finally separate the tall tales from the truth and learn who his father really is (and was) before he passes.
This Is Halloween: As Will rummages through his father’s version of his life and adventures, Burton creates a number of stunning visual transitions: from a haunted, cobwebbed swamp to the idyllic, hidden town of Spectre; from a rainy highway at twilight to an underwater kingdom filled with mermaids; the vines engulfing Jenny’s home as time undoes Edward’s handiwork and the dulling reality of unrequited love sets in. Some of these visuals scream Tim Burton, but at the time, they also demonstrated the filmmaker’s palette to be far more visually and emotionally expansive than previously understood.
MBC: Sure, there’s a witch and a werewolf — or at least that’s how one version of the story goes — but there’s also a really big fish named Edward Bloom in this movie. Burton often chooses projects about outsiders — people who are inherently different — and the magic of his stories is not that we find a way to make them acclimate to our worlds, but that we develop a better understanding of why some fish are bigger than others. In other words, we don’t reel them in and haul them to shore; we learn to wade out and meet them in the waters they inhabit. Otherwise, they might dry up.
Man of the Hour: Maybe it’s because Albert Finney passed away this February, but kudos to Burton for opening up an opportunity for the veteran British actor, as he did for Martin Landau in Ed Wood, to shine later in his career in a role with as much depth as the lake his character ultimately swims off in. When Eddie Vedder’s “Man of the Hour” pipes in over the end credits, it’s difficult to hold back the tears.
Going Natural: Although Big Fish is as magical as any of Burton’s fairy tales, it also takes place in the familiar setting of the small-town American south. Audiences then likely feel as though Burton is telling and imagining a story in their world for a change, rather than asking them to step into one entirely of his own making. It makes for a quaint and natural visual setting, something that Burton would then abandon for quite a while in the lavish CGI worlds of his later period.
The Verdict: Big Fish is one of those achievements in Burton’s career when many fans likely stopped and thought: “Gee, I didn’t know he could make that kind of movie”. He takes the magic of his dark fairy tales and imbues Edward Bloom’s personal folktales with that same sense of wonder. The result is a father-son adventure that a far larger audience could ultimately embrace. After all, who among us has never felt the desire to set the record straight with a parent or come to know them better? Will Bloom finishing his father’s story remains an inspired and touching revelation for both the character and audiences at large.
04. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Runtime: 1 hr. 45 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest, Winona Ryder, Anthony Michael Hall, Alan Arkin, Kathy Baker, Robert Oliveri, a treasure trove of American character actors, and Vincent Price
The Pitch: There’s a big, dark house up on a hill outside a candy-colored corner of suburbia. It’s the kind of place you assume adults ignore, and kids maybe throw rocks at from time to time, but that’s it — a landmark, not a home. But when no one wants to buy any Avon products from Peg (the great Wiest), she summons up all her considerable pluck and heads to that house, where she finds Edward (Depp), a man built — but unfinished — by the now-dead Inventor (Price), who fell prey to a bum heart before he could give his creation hands. Peg, sensing Edward’s inherent gentleness, brings him home, where he soon wins over her husband (Arkin) and kids (Oliveri, Ryder), the latter of whom captures Edward’s heart before she even arrives.
But Edward, as you might guess from the title, has scissors for hands, and while the beautiful things he can do with those hands at first enchant the neighbors — The topiaries! The grooming! — his otherness gradually frightens them, and the sweetness of the fairy tale gives way to the darkness that too often follows in its wake.
This is Halloween: Edward Scissorhands is one of the Burtoniest of all Burton’s films, yet it somehow comes across as more subdued than even his more restrained films. Burton’s lens seems to reflect Edward’s view of the world, beauty and color and noise everywhere, a welcome but overwhelming intrusion into his stark, isolated world. Perhaps it’s because we’re encouraged to see the world as Edward sees it, and to see Edward as Peg and her family see him, Burton’s gothic and expressionist flourishes seem to be more organic. It’s a marvelous world that’s created, and one that would set the tone for films to follow, for better and for worse.
Oh, and the scissor hands? Nothing was ever Burtonier.
MBC: At this point, you should be used to seeing Johnny Depp’s name in this slot. They have a whole thing going on. This is their best collaboration, and it’s all the more impressive because it’s also the first. Depp’s interest in silent film comes through loud and clear, and his tendency toward affectation here comes across as the striving of a person who hasn’t learned how to be around other people yet. Coupled with a natural timidity sprung from the character’s background, it makes for an affecting, endlessly fascinating performance that Depp has matched rarely, if ever, since.
Wiest! Wiest! Wiest! Wiest!: As good as Depp is — and love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s great here — the film’s success actually hinges on Dianne Wiest’s performance as Peg. There are few American actors more suited to entering a heightened world with a heightened performance that’s still somehow honest and emotional, and while this is far from the only time Wiest would pull off such a feat, it’s one of the best examples. Just look at this scene (skip to the :50 mark, if you’re in a rush):
That is a goddamn marvel. Peg Boggs makes a huge leap there, and Wiest sells every second of it. You believe she’d bring him home for no other reason than because he clearly needs one. Not many could pull that off. Wiest handles it like it’s just a regular Tuesday. What a performance.
This section contains spoilers for two movies that are almost 30 years old, be warned: The parallels to the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast would have been obvious even without the ending. But then Anthony Michael Hall falls through a window of the scary mansion on the hill and dies, a feat echoed a year or so later by Gaston, the swarthy egg-eating villain of Disney’s excellent musical adaptation. Just goes to show: sometimes sweetly romantic movies need a dollop of ruthlessness to undercut the gently falling snow.
The Verdict: Some of you, dear Readers, might have put Edward Scissorhands lower on this list. You are wrong. Some of you might have put it higher. Some—namely, this writer — might agree with you. But whether you think Burton’s feat of sweet, unsettling imagination is over- or underrated, there’s no denying that it laid the groundwork for decades of moviemaking. Some of the aesthetic choices and oddball tendencies on display here work better elsewhere, some will be repeated over and over again until they have well and truly lost all potency. But in this deceptively simple film, they work together beautifully.
Here’s the key to its success, in the opinion of one weirdo writer who loves this film, yet has found herself disappointed in later Burton, again and again: The style never outpaces the substance, and the substance is all heart. Peg, a woman whose job centers on beauty, shows compassion immediately to a person who in a conventional sense has almost none. There’s fear in that first meeting, yes, but it’s almost immediately dismissed in favor of tenderness and comfort, of acceptance and kindness that’s refreshingly matter-of-fact.
Just as Depp’s Chaplin-goes-goth affectations here play a role in underlining the emotional reality of the story, all the Burton flourishes serve to highlight the simple truths that sit at the heart of Scissorhands: Loneliness can be torture. Love can make the world seem magical. There’s loveliness everywhere, if you choose to see it, and outward perfection is no indication of inner beauty. They aren’t knifehand, they’re scissorhands. They’re not meant to wound. They’re meant to be useful.
03. Batman Returns (1992)
Runtime: 2 hr. 6 mins.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken
The Pitch: It’s Christmas time in Gotham City and everyone’s in the spirit. There’s the Bat (Keaton), the Cat (Pfeiffer), and the Penguin (DeVito), colliding across the snowy streets in all their destructive, primal ways. Behind it all is a Trumpian industrialist named Max Shreck (Walken), a.k.a. the Santa Claus of Gotham, whose philanthropic history is nothing more than a lump of coal in a Versace stocking.
This is Halloween: Initially, Burton expressed zero interest in a sequel to his 1989 blockbuster. “I will return if the sequel offers something new and exciting,” he said, adding, “Otherwise it’s a most-dumbfounded idea.” To that, Warner Bros. handed him the keys to Gotham, and Burton unlocked the gates of his wildest imagination, unwrapping a gothic Christmas movie in the summery bowels of June 1993.
Simply put, Burton went Full Burton, walking down every murky alley he could dream up, and yet the more twisted his story became, the more intriguing it appeared on screen. By the end of it, he had the ultimate anti-summer blockbuster on his hands, one in which the sun never rises, the kids aren’t alright in the slightest, and the hero’s forced to call shotgun for a zombie with an unlikely knack for BDSM.
It’s why McDonald’s hated it, and we love it.
MBC: It’s really a toss-up between DeVito’s Penguin and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but we’re giving the bird the edge. Sure, Selina Kyle’s sexual overtones and stitched-together getup screams of Burton’s darkest fantasies — and led to many posters being stolen off buses in 1992 — but there’s just no discounting the grotesque and savage body horror in which Burton indulges with Oswald Cobblepot.
The flippers! The nose! The raggedy hair! DeVito is downright filthy in this movie, and Burton worships every ounce of terror he’s able to wedge in. This isn’t the auteur honoring DC’s source material — the Penguin was never this foul, no pun intended — but his own alma mater, be it David Lynch’s The Elephant Man or Tod Browning’s Freaks. That subversion is true-blue Burton, who hardly wasted having free rein.
Lick It Up, Baby: If Burton’s aesthetic didn’t scare audiences away, then screenwriter Daniel Waters’ prose certainly did, and that was by design. You see, Burton loved Heathers — you know, the movie where Christian Slater and Winona Ryder kill their classmates, it’s wonderful — and although he originally had him in his sights for a Beetlejuice sequel, he tapped him for Bats II. You know, for the kids.
Similar to Heathers, the dialogue in Batman Returns is deliciously sinful. Every line is awash in either sexual innuendo or mean-spirited cynicism, all laced with a winking self-awareness that elevates it beyond the schmaltz that would unravel its two sequels. Waters is the Robin to Burton’s Dark Knight, and without his knack for black comedy, Batman Returns would be a fucking drag.
Hear Me Roar: In Burton’s world, the costumed personalities of his heroes and villains are their true identities — to varying degrees, mind you. On one end, there’s the more pragmatic Batman, who Keaton plays with unnatural stoicism. On the other end, there’s the disgusting Penguin, who DeVito plays in the most literal sense, as he waddles around and viciously devours raw fish like a feral animal.
Caught between these two worlds is Catwoman, which explains why Pfeiffer delivers the most nuanced performance of the trio, swinging madly from one side to the other. It also stands to reason why she’s by far the most interesting; she’s unsure, complicated, grey. With Catwoman, you never really know where she stands, and that indecision is the most human trait among Burton’s creatures.
Pee Wee’s Big Adoption: Yes, that’s Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger at the beginning there. The two Big Adventure co-stars play Cobblepot’s aristocratic parents, who dump their baby in the sewer, essentially setting the tone for all the macabre drama that’s to come.
The Verdict: What truly makes Batman Returns such a resounding success is how nothing is an afterthought. Danny Elfman’s twinkling score is essential. The costumes are all Oscar-worthy. The Gothic set designs are ingenious. The story is gripping. Everything comes together with the utmost confidence, making this one of Burton’s most assured productions, which isn’t too bold of a statement when you recall his career arc at the time.
Let’s not forget, Burton was only two years removed from his magnum opus, Edward Scissorhands, and was already hard at work on producing the groundbreaking adaptation of his cult children’s book, The Nightmare Before Christmas. This was Peak Burton, back when he was operating at an untouchable level, and he could ably carve out marvelous worlds that were removed from reality, yet close enough to our own that everyone could keep their bearings.
02. Beetlejuice (1988)
Runtime: 1 hr. 32 min.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Robert Goulet, Dick Cavett, sand worms
The Pitch: Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) have died. Freak bridge accident. But in the wake of their passing, the bucolic upstate home that they worked so hard to maintain has been infested with the worst creatures imaginable: yuppies. More specifically, the Deetzes. Adam and Barbara try home apparitions and haunting the family out, but nothing works. Time to call in a professional. The reckless, dangerous, and frighteningly charismatic Betelgeuse (Keaton). Just say the name three times.
This is Halloween: Where to begin on the classic visuals of Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice? It’s like a carnival of spooky sights, played for comedy both droll and gonzo. From Keaton’s horrendous two-tone outfits, to that stair rail that turns into a snake, to Burton’s own predilections for depicting the afterlife in DMV terms, this thing churns out the hits in terms of Burton’s vision. Skeletal office workers. Fun house hallways with askew doors. Colorful high-contrast lighting, peaking out of the shadows. Beetlejuice in a crimson 1970s tux with ruffles and his gut hanging out. Burton maximizes, and it’s a grim feast for the eyes. Running the range from sight gags to mordant terrors, Beetlejuice rubbernecks beautifully.
MBC: Sure, there’s the iconic ghost with the most himself, Betelgeuse, a black-and-white lounger singer demon who got his own cartoon. And yes, there’s Lydia Deetz, the patron saint of emo kids and a veritable calling card for Burton’s anti-social interests. But no, for our money, the sand worms feel like the purest distillation of Burton’s exaggerated, jagged, and dark-in-every-way aesthetic. These stripey bastards just scream “Burton,” more than any creep or geek could. Also, they’re just horrible, memorable, and the stuff of nightmares.
Writing’s On the Wall: We’ve covered this pretty extensively before, but it bears repeating: the existence of Beetlejuice is a minor miracle. After countless rewrites, mixed approaches, and left turns in production (it was close to being a standard horror joint a la The Exorcist), Burton and nutso writer Warren Skaaren lucked their way into a groovy cult flick with courageous improvisation and a deeply strange reference set. Betelgeuse is the name of a red supergiant star, by the way. Think on that pun.
Could you imagine Sammy Davis Jr. in this? Or Beetlejuice as a hard-R creepshow? There are so many other ways this venture could have gone down, but Burton and Skaaren and their cast got it just right.
Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian: Just shut up about the sequel already. We got a great cartoon and some decent toys out of this. Just the thought of a Beetlejuice sequel, and the absurdity of trying to make one (hear Kevin Smith out), is more enjoyable than the idea of actually seeing a decades-later sequel.
The Verdict: When Burton gets pegged down as this repetitively spoooooky guy, it feels like people forget what a fresh-faced curiosity he was in 1987. Fresh off the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton made quirk look exciting and spontaneous. And Beetlejuice kinda took everyone by surprise as this top ten hit. It’s easy enough to peg it as horror-comedy, and let’s really think about that mix. Burton found gallows humor in the banality of the afterlife, but warned audiences of the fearsome unknown that comes with playing in these spaces. Beetlejuice is such a perennial fave because it’s still so odd and exciting. And identifiable characters – not to mention a charismatic lead – ground this theater of the absurd. No one comes up with ideas these odd, this freewheeling, and we’re lucky Burton had the audacity to put this one out.
01. Ed Wood (1994)
Runtime: 2 hr. 26 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray
The Pitch: Notoriously dubbed The Worst Filmmaker of All Time, Ed Wood follows the titular doe-eyed director (Depp) through his struggles to break into the film industry. Along the way, he cobbles together a group of misfits, failed actors, and washed-up stars (including an elderly Bela Lugosi in Landau) to craft some of the more endearingly horrid motion pictures in history, from Glen or Glenda to Plan 9 From Outer Space.
This is Halloween: There’s a certain look one associates with Burton – lush, Gothic imagery, Expressionistic angles, dark fairy-tale production design. Apart from the aforementioned Expressionism, Ed Wood is remarkable for lacking those visual signposts. In keeping with the cheap-and-dirty look of Wood’s own films, Burton shoots Ed Wood like a piece of ‘50s schlock. Black and white images captured by locked-down cameras force Burton to play with the tools of his hero, which makes the effect all the more intimate.
MBC: Burton loves his misfits, and Ed Wood is King of the Misfits. He’s a bug-eyed optimist who doesn’t care what people think, and just wants to create unfettered by concerns about money, time, or talent. Depp, with his clipped 1950s delivery and confident stride, perfectly embodies the kind of artistic confidence so many objectively more talented filmmakers wish they could have.
Visions Are Worth Fighting For: Taking charmingly broad strokes with Wood’s story, Burton’s version imagines Wood taking refuge in a bar during the opening screening of Plan 9, only to run into a smoke-cloaked Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), who asks him, “Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” In the context of a Burton who’s been on both sides of the studio machine, that question rings throughout his entire body of work.
Pull the String! It’s impossible to talk about Ed Wood without bringing up Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi. Through Landau’s deep, sad eyes and thick Eastern European accent, we see the washed-up actor as a man out of time — someone who’s wrapped himself in the black cloak of his most iconic character and doesn’t plan to let up. His attachment to Wood as his fan-turned-savior is perhaps the deepest tragedy of the film: unlike Wood, he actually has talent. But more than a director, he just needs a friend.
The Verdict: Looking back, it’s impossible to imagine a greater pair of kindred spirits than Ed Wood and Tim Burton. Sure, Burton’s films (at the time, at least) were met with critical acclaim and no small amount of box office success, but his films were just as strange and as idiosyncratic as Wood’s. To that end, watching Ed Wood feels like getting the purest, deepest look at a filmmaker who already lays his neuroses bare on the big screen. Here, we see a loving look at not just filmmaking, but the creative process itself, and how the journey is almost always worth it even if the end result turns out poorly. Burton sees Wood with rose-colored glasses: his films may have been terrible, but he got them made.