For me, a Tim Burton film is either a homerun or a ground out. Lately, he’s in a slump. Dumbo was not a disaster, but far from a hit. Next up, Beetlejuice 2. Okay. Plow familiar ground. Unfortunately, when you produce a string of big hits, fans expect to clear the bases every at-bat.
Burton has a style all his own. Gothic, foreboding, quirky, black humor, blender of fantasy and reality, visually striking, daring. Whether he is re-envisioning a fairy-tale classic story, bring a comic book to life, creating a new story or using animation, Burton goes boldly into the visual storytelling realm in much the way Disney films did during their classic period.
Burton was attracted to gothic, fairytale, fantasy stories. With a touch of horror, the supernatural, dark humor, awkward characters, dark color tones or garish color, these are unnatural storyscapes, even if a part of these characters strike a familiar chord in us. Burton’s fantasy is the flip side of our reality. Not only are the tales fantastic and grand, he can burrow deep inside a character’s buried past or unresolved dream. Even his misses offer us something other filmmakers don’t or can’t.
Here are ten films over 35 years, representing what I think is his best of his work.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) Pee-wee Herman, captured at his finest. The first film was great, the second film b someone other than Burton, was second-rate. Burton dialed into Pee-wee’s odd and satirical humor perfectly. There is a kitschy humor to the oddball Pee-wee, the first of many such lead characters in future Burton films. Burton and Pee-Wee Herman are at first an odd mix, but it was a good partnership. Burton was able to marry the kid-like silliness and naivety, with the strangeness and farce-like qualities that thread through the film.
Beetlejuice (1988) Burton achieved great success creating strange, but inviting places, and characters who populated those odd worlds. Burton quickly learned to harness the power of color and filter to emphasize horror and dreamy cool. Beetlejuice is Burton’s most bizarre combination of genres and visual gags. It is more like a comic book than a narrative film.
Batman (1989) The first of the Batman films, and the first comic book character film that showed how it could be done well and spawn a genre. Superman and Flash Gordon didn’t do it. Burton brought mystery, suspense, darkness and warmth to the character. The sequel was very good, but not great. Burton and Michael Keaton did wonderful work together.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) The first of the films with Johnny Depp, who could bring a human quality to Burton’s oddball characters. The colorful look is like a live-action comic book. You can feel the awkwardness and frustration of the Edward, a creation, not a real person, although he loves and aches like a human. Burton wrote the original story, based in part on his own childhood struggles to fit in.
Ed Wood (1994) This might be Burton’s best film. Shot in black and white and with a striking visual tone, the focus is on the acting. Burton gets great performances from Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray. The story of B director Ed Wood is legendary, and you might think it is too slight for a feature film, but Burton creates a very entertaining world of Wood and his strange personal habits, and the world of making bad movies. The film opened to very positive reviews, but poor box office. This is one of Burton’s box office bombs, but a superior film. Martin Landau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe awards for his role as Bela Lugosi. Depp turns in one of his best performances as the goofy, cross-dressing Wood.
Mars Attacks! (1996) Like Spielberg’s 1941, or Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a mess of big comedy, but highly entertaining. The film has a big cast and is a mix of live action and CGI characters. The humor is broad, very broad, although the film seems a throwback to the conflicted 1950s where we could not decide if space aliens would come in peace or shoot first. Burton rounds up a stellar cast including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Rod Stieger and Pierce Brosnan.
Sleepy Hollow (1999) Based on the Washington Irving book, a visual delight with a cast of incredible actors in this amusing horror film. Heads get chopped off, but it is handled tastefully. Another film with Depp, who plays Ichabod, a squeamish detective sent to investigate these murders. The headless horseman, undead, lops off the heads of townspeople. The horseman is controlled by someone, which is the key to the mystery. This film contains a bit of everything.
Big Fish (2003) Fantasy and reality are woven into an epic story with Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor playing versions of the same character. Both actors turn in very fine performances. Finney got better, later in life, as he brought power and humility to his characters. Big Fish is almost like a fairy-tale, it’s story is grand, carried out over decades, it has whimsical vignettes and deeply touching stories. Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito and Helena Bonham Carter are among the cast. Not lost in the fantasy and visual delights is a story of a son trying to connect with his father before he dies.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) The second filmed version of the Roald Dahl story. Burton was approved by the Dahl Estate to direct. Depp again came onboard, as Charlie, he gave one of his best performances. The film grossed almost half a billion dollars worldwide. I’m not as crazy as some about this film and the original, but it has a built-in audience from the Dahl book. The film’s look is tilted more toward a fantasyland than reality, of course a prerequisite for a Burton film. A nice marriage of story writer, director and lead actor.
The Corpse Bride (2005) A musical fantasy film, stop-motion animation, co-directed by Burton. Burton achieves an Addams Family look macabre look, between the dark world and the design of the characters, there is no mistaking what you are in for. Depp was hired to provide the voice of Victor Van Dort, who is going to marry Emily, the Corpse Bride. The film was a critical and financial success, though it felt less original than one hoped.
Not included is 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, a film that grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Successful, but hollow. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) was less successful financially, but still made money. Again, great visuals cannot make up for a weaker script. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was an adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim musical. It made back its budget and got some nice reviews, but not cup of tea. Planet of the Apes (2001) had grit and that serious, dark Burton look, much different from the original’s bright colors. I watched it, but was never impressed. I’ll stick with the original.
An interesting short feature on Tim Burton explaining how eccentric characters tend to mirror his own life.