For reasons Blank Check Podcast related, I have spent the dog days of summer going through Tim Burton’s filmography. That would pretty much be the only reason to do so, as there are at least two reasons in 2019 why a Tim Burton marathon might not be the most pleasant thing to put oneself through. The first reason is that up, front, and center in a huge chunk of Tim Burton’s movies is Johnny Depp who is at the very least a problematic figure nowadays. While revisiting his earlier work provides some evidence as to why “cancel” culture is a little too revisionistic, it certainly doesn’t help in enjoying some of his later, phoned-in performances here. Which brings us to the second reason a Tim Burton marathon is quite unappealing, namely that there is a clear demarkation point in his career where the ratio of hits to misses flips dramatically and the last decade or so has produced a string of near-unwatchable flops, with nary a sign that things might improve.
And yet, revisiting Burton has not been without its pleasures. For a child of the 90s, Tim Burton was easily the first director I understood had a “style” to his movies. And it is undeniable that his first fifteen years in the business were phenomenal and nearly unparalleled. It is truly a great mystery why Burton seemingly lost his touch, fortunately he had already established himself as one of the greats by that point. So here is my ranking:
19. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
The moment Alice (Mia Wasikowska) falls down the rabbit hole serves as a helpful waypoint for the moment Tim Burton’s career seemingly “jumps the shark”. His most financially successful movie (if only because it piggy-backed on Avatar’s revitalization of 3-D), this ill-conceived movie runs into problems right from the start. It is technically a sequel to the original story, yet Burton inexplicably saddles Alice with a memory loss problem and then has her run through most of the major set-pieces from the original (but with a slapped on “dark” twist). His decision to then slap an overarching narrative arc to a story that is the definition of episodic effectively smooths the narrative of most of its weirdness. But most egregiously this marks the moment in which Johnny Depp begins to phone in his performances by substituting “eccentricity” for character development – a trend he still is engaged in with increasingly diminished returns.
18. PLANET OF THE APES (2001)
When trying to come up with a unlikely actor-director pairing, one would be hard pressed to come up with an odder couple than Tim Burton, the godfather of modern goth culture, and Mark Wahlberg, the blue-collar hero of the kind of people who would have made taking lunch money from goth kids a regular occurrence. And that clearly shows in this oddly boring remake of Planet of the Apes, as Wahlberg struggles to emote anything beyond unbelief and contempt for the costumed creatures around him as Burton also seemingly tries to insert about three installments’ worth of plot into this mess. The only thing keeping this movie from landing square in the bottom is the unquestionably amazing makeup work, and it is a pity that work was wasted on a bad movie.
17. DARK SHADOWS (2012)
This movie is the very definition of two creators, Burton and Depp, on autopilot. All of the usual Burton tropes are there: the Gothic aesthetic, the weird and eccentric characters, and Burton’s predilection for the outsider over and against the “normal”. But at its best Dark Shadows comes off as merely a Beetlejuice retread, as Burton seems so busy trying to hit all the major plot points from the original soap opera that he has hardly any time to come up with anything original to say on his own. Meanwhile Johnny Depp for some reason seems contemptibly disinterested which is strange considering that he allegedly was the one who wanted to make the movie in the first place. And though Burton might seem a good fit for the material from a Gothic standpoint, his awkward handling of the source material’s sexiness remains proof-positive that sex remains Burton’s achilles heel.
16. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)
The moment I saw the cover for this book, my first thought was that it looked like a Tim Burton movie. And therein lies what I think is the heart of the problem with late-Burton movies. In this last decade he has either been asked to apply his “Burton”-touch to existing IP’s (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo) or, as is the case here, is being spoon-fed an IP that is tailor-made to keep him within his aesthetic. Where his works in the 80s and 90s was about the creation of a unique and interesting aesthetic, so much of his latter career has been about replication of his aesthetic for aesthetic’s sake with nary a hint that he has anything interesting to bring to the table beyond that. And so it is with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which has all the visual flourish of Burton’s aesthetic but fails to find anything resembling emotional resonance. Of course it also doesn’t help that the entire cast seems to be as much on autopilot as Burton is.
15. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)
Admittedly part of the reason this movie ranks so low for me is that in this day and age, it is kind of hard to watch a Johnny Depp performance that channels among other things Michael Jackson in a movie about a eccentric factory owner choosing his future ward. What the movie does have going for it however is the fact that it hews much more closely to its source material than Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It also helps that Burton is at the top of his game aesthetically here, creating a hyperkinetic but dark visual landscape upon which he imparts Wonka’s sweet confectionaries to us. But the true MVP of this movie is Deep Roy who plays every Oompa Loompa through a riotous and anarchic set of songs that mark the end of one of the child hopefuls – all in a movie that is expressly NOT a musical, and might instead be the best way to introduce a child to the slasher genre.
14. BIG EYES (2014)
I had a lot of hope for Big Eyes when it first came out, especially since it looked exactly like the kind of lower-budget and more intimate drama that Burton desperately needed to make after the high profile flops he had been churning out at the time. And while it represents a welcome departure at that time in Tim Burton’s career, it is also barely a footnote of a movie. Burton struggles to figure out the hook in this true story about the artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her husband Walter Keane (Christopher Waltz) who took credit for her work. Part of the problem is that Adams and Waltz are such charismatic presences that the movie’s focus constantly shifts unnecessarily in what should be a simple narrative. But the larger reason this movie doesn’t work as well as it should is that it is unclear why Burton decided this was a project he needed to make, so it similarly is hard to see exactly what specific imprint he brings to the movie.
13. THE CORPSE BRIDE (2005)
The best compliment I can give this movie is one I can give to any major-studio stop-motion animated feature, namely that its craft is incredible. Unfortunately the craft is perhaps the only thing to recommend is this movie that is the definition of slight. The story of a thwarted marriage between Victor (Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) because of a mix-up with an undead Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) has the level of stakes befitting a short story (the original story is based on a 19th century folktale) but spread threadbare to meet the still sparse run-time of 77 minutes. It is a beautifully crafted film, but all it does is evoke the previous Tim Burton-produced stop-motion pictures that came before it (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) and in light of those two films, it comes up wanting.
12. DUMBO (2019)
While there are many flaws with this live-action adaptation of Dumbo, including the inherent cynical cash-in nature of all of Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated features, incredibly Tim Burton manages to wrangle some life out of this movie to justify its existence and, by so doing, hopefully shocks his career back to life again. It helps that he is aided by a cast led by former Burton mainstays Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito who actually look interested in providing a performance. But the true genius of Burton’s Dumbo is that he seems to have latched onto the title character as an analogy for his own career in Hollywood as the oddball child who is randomly embraced, and then increasingly rejected by studio executives and movie audiences. The movie isn’t perfect, and any scene involving its child actors is absolutely cringeworthy, but Burton manages to take Dumbo to new and, more importantly, interesting heights.
11. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
As far as directing debuts go, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure has to stand as one of the best. In hindsight, it is clear to see that this is much more Pee-Wee Herman’s movie than it is Tim Burton’s as his crayon-box colors, sunny-side up persona, and frenetic energy dominate proceedings – significantly standing out from most of Burton’s filmography both in terms of tone and look. How one feels about the movie also directly correlates with how one feels about Pee-Wee himself which, seeing as the Pee-Wee Herman Show never made it as part of my viewing lexicon, explains the movie’s middling position here.
10. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
Yes, Tim Burton cut out perhaps the most iconic song from Stephen Sondheim’s musical and Johnny Depp’s singing performance is perfunctory at best but there is no doubt that this still represents one of the best adaptations of a Broadway play to the big screen. Burton succeeds because he seems to understand the intrinsic strengths and weaknesses of both the stage and screen, choosing not to try and replicate the intricate and intimate set designs that make the play so successful. Instead he realizes that the one thing the stage play could never provide is the blood and gore inherent in the script. And this he provides in stylized droves resulting in what is easily the most violent movie of Burton’s career and, apart from the next movie, the closest he has ever to making a straight-up horror film.
9. SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
Sleepy Hollow represents an unfortunate turning point in Tim Burton’s career as it is the last movie to carry on Burton’s unbroken streak of great movies stretching back to his debut film. His brilliant masterstroke here is to take the usual conventions of a slasher film and transport it to the much fussier time of colonial America where instead of young teenagers getting hacked down we get stuffy colonialists as the Headless Horseman’s victims. This might also represent the Depp-Burton partnership at its peak as we still get a Depp performance as Ichabod Crane that strikes the correct balance between earnest and eccentric – indicative of an actor who has not yet conquered Hollywood, nor seemingly having any ambition to do so anyway. The end result is a solid if unspectacular movie, perhaps the last time that has happened in his career that will be later defined by big swings and misses.
8. FRANKENWEENIE (2012)
While Frankenweenie seems to be almost comically completely in Tim Burton’s wheelhouse, but what sets the stop-motion gem apart from most of Tim Burton’s late-career middling work is that Burton himself seems personally invested in the material. This is unsurprising since it is a feature length adaptation of his original short that propelled him to his first directorial gig. It also helps that this Frankenstein spoof is filled to the brim with so many homages to classic horror cinema, from a director who is so obviously in love with them, that it is incredibly hard not to be giddily carried along with it. But ultimately what makes Frankenweenie succeed is that Burton finally taps into the feeling of being an outsider in a “normal” society in a way that is genuine and not manufactured; like his best movies below Frankenweenie’s weird exterior hides a surprisingly emotional heart.
7. BIG FISH (2003)
Like Ed Wood before it, Big Fish represents a major departure from Burton typical wheelhouse, and all the better for it. On one level, this is an extremely intimate story about a son, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), trying to reconcile with his father, Edward (Albert Finney), who has manufactured their family story into a well-spun fairy tale and, apparently, devoid of truth. But then there are the yarns spun by Edward himself, brought wonderfully to life by Tim Burton’s seemingly boundless imagination, and anchored by a wonderful performance by Ewan McGregor, in a celebration of storytelling, myth-making, and the positive power of narrative in shaping one’s identity.
6. MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
Fresh off his biopic of the legendary B-movie director Ed Wood, Tim Burton somehow convinced a studio to sanction what looks like a big budget tribute to Ed Wood’s career. The cast list alone is insane, stacked with many an A-list star of the 90s (Nicholson, Close, Benning, Devito, Brosnan etc.) as well as a serendipitous mix of future stars (Natalie Portman, Jack Black, Lukas Haas, and Christina Applegate in very early roles). But the true stars of the movie are the invasive species of Martians, who have all the mischief of a Looney Tunes character but combined with the homicidal tendencies of a serial killer. Unfortunately it came on the heels of sleeper mega-hit Independence Day and was viewed at the time as a not-so-clever spoof of that movie’s success leading to a box-office failure and perhaps the beginnings of Burton choosing to stay within his own lane. With the passage of time and on its own merits however, it can rightly claim its place as one of the weirdest blockbusters ever made, and an anarchically joyous one to boot.
5. BATMAN (1989)
The glut of superhero movies (including the thirty-something person deep cast of Avengers: Endgame) has dulled our surprise at seeing A-list stars don capes and cowls. Nonetheless it is still astonishing to think of the audacity to cast uber-A-list and multiple Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson, at the height of his powers no less, and convince him not only to don a bunch of gaudy make-up but to also ad-lib dance to not one but TWO Prince songs to boot. But that is only the beginning of the odd pairings of artist to the Dark Knight’s source material. Fresh off his success on Beetlejuice, Tim Burton did not seem a natural fit for adapting Batman, and yet his aesthetic not only unexpectedly meshes with Gotham City, it successfully shapes the look of Batman for the next decade to come (culminating in Batman: The Animated Series). Similarly, if Tim Burton were to carry over a cast member from Beetlejuice to play the Dark Knight, one might have expected him to go with Alec Baldwin and not the comedically charged Michael Keaton. Yet this again proves an inspired choice as Keaton brings just enough insanity to the role to make his the best cinematic Bruce Wayne depiction (don’t @ me). And finally Danny Elfman, who up to this point was known mostly for zany and kinetic scores, proves an inspired choice for Batman, and his character theme for Batman himself is one of the most iconic music scores of modern cinema.
4. BEETLEJUICE (1988)
In many ways Beetlejuice is ground zero for the Burton aesthetic. Perhaps so much of what has gone wrong later in his career can be traced back to the fact that he says he struggles to watch the movie because the effects have not aged well. This is of course ludicrous as it is the weird and uncanny stop-motion sequences meshed in with live-action that is precisely what gives the movie its weird power (I shudders to think how anonymous looking a CGI version of the movie would look like). Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin play what might be the most normal people ever to appear in a Tim Burton movie as the recently deceased homeowners who can’t even muster enough creativity to scare their new house occupants. As is usual for Tim Burton, it is in the weird margins that this movie absolutely shines, whether it is with 80s dream goth-child Wynona Ryder, or the hilariously over-the-top Catherine O’Hara who almost steals the prize as the best thing about this movie. But alas, that prize belongs to none other than the impish Beetlejuice, played by a manically unhinged Michael Keaton; it seems a shame that in his illustrious career he has never been given a chance to play another character quite like the titular malevolent poltergeist. Thankfully we have this performance to look back on.
3. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
There is something gloriously anarchic about the fact that, fresh off the unprecedented and lucrative success that was Batman, Burton decided to take the sequel into a psychosexual gothic Grimm’s-fairy-tale route so dark and twisted that it prompted McDonalds to pull all of their Batman Returns Happy Meal toys off the line. The movie is also perhaps (sans one other Tim Burton character) the perfect encapsulation of Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic. What is most remarkable about Batman Returns though, is that it is clearly a Penguin (Danny DeVito) movie first, a Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) movie second, and arguably a Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) movie third, inadvertently showing just how rich the Batman universe is in that a movie can have it titular character be the fourth most-important character in the movie and still be an utterly compelling movie.
2. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Sure, Edward Scissorhands is almost a parody of a Tim Burton creation, as if someone reverse engineered Burton’s aesthetic into a single character. This Frankenstein-esque fairy tale certainly has an iconic eccentric outsider for its main character, but what makes Edward Scissorhands one of Tim Burton’s best is the way he draws out the abnormal weirdness of the pursuit of normality. Edward emerges from his isolated mansion into a mono-cultured suburbia, and the greatest sign that this is a fairy tale is that he isn’t run straight out of town on account of his strangeness; his presence instead arouses within the townsfolk the reality that the safety of their conformity is achieved only by suppressing and oppressing their own desires. The level of control and supreme confidence with which Burton directs proceedings is unparalleled in his career; it is without a doubt his most personal story. There is a strong argument to be made that this represents the pinnacle of his career, if only because it seems obvious that this is the movie that he got into directing in order to make. The fact that it came this early in his career is a compelling “theory-of-the-case” as to why so much of his latter work comes with exponentially diminishing returns.
1. ED WOOD (1994)
One can easily imagine a biopic about Ed Wood that makes him the butt of the joke, underlining why he wears the moniker “worst director of all time.” But what makes Ed Wood one of the great biopics of all time is that it seems Burton is utterly perplexed as to why Wood gained his reputation. His portrayal of Ed Wood is of someone who had a singularly unique vision that was simply not matched by the paltry budgets given him – clearly Burton sees himself in Ed Wood and has no answers as to why Burton garnered the level of success he did with his weird and wonderful vision while Wood floundered. This lack of an explanation for their diverging career paths makes Ed Wood a compellingly sympathetic portrait. Of course it also helps when the acting crew puts in some career best performances, not the least being Martin Landau as Wood’s magnetic and misunderstood star Bela Lugosi. It is just an incredible pity that the movie ended up being a flop at the time as it propelled Burton to return to genre fare; one can’t help but wonder how his career develops if this movie had been box-office gold.