If there’s one thing Tim Burton’s excellent at, it’s directing films. Equally, if there’s one thing Tim Burton’s terrible at… it’s directing films. 30 years since his feature debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton’s lauded genius seems to have diminished with time and volume – though there’s still much to admire in the man’s pseudo-Gothic visions. It’s a perfect time to trawl through Burton’s oeuvre and evaluate just what makes him such a fascinating figure among A-list Hollywood helmers.
As a boy, Burton was obsessed with monster movies and Hammer horror; years later, he studied Animation at the prestigious CalArts where his short Stalk of the Celery Monster essentially won him a job at Disney. The problem with this was that Burton’s often rather dark, expressionist visions – such as his designs for the eponymous Black Cauldron – had absolutely no place in the House of Mouse. They couldn’t lose such a skilled hand, of course, so they essentially set him to work in a basement on his own bizarre ideas.
Enter Vincent (1982), one of the all-time great animated shorts, and Frankenweenie (1984), a live-action canine take on James Whale’s classic film (not so much Shelley’s novel). Vincent, following a boy who wants to be Vincent Price, is a clear starting-point for anyone looking to get into Burton. Here, we have the wonky chiaroscuro shots, the Edward Gorey design and the dark humour clearly intended only to amuse its creator. This is where Burton was born. Disney, who somehow didn’t realise what they were getting into, screened Vincent for just a fortnight, and later, upon seeing Frankenweenie, claimed Burton had been wasting company resources (on an unreleasably macabre film, no less) and fired him.
Both films were, however, seen by comedian Paul Reubens, who immediately hired Burton to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, released August 1985. It is a perfectly fine film, with all sorts of lovely Burtonesque touches (plus an early Danny Elfman score), that follows Pee-Wee’s attempts to retrieve his stolen bike. Between the whimsical comedy, imaginative production design and monstrous characters such as Large Marge, something important grew: both a grand beginning for a hot new director, and his slow sublimation into a world of studio complacency.
Not that the back-slapping over this talented weirdo was immediately harmful: Pee-Wee granted Burton a relatively free ticket to craft Geffen’s Beetlejuice (1988), a bizarro haunted-house comedy starring the likes of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hara and Michael Keaton, plus a young Winona Ryder. It is a timeless comedy and one-of-a-kind ghost story, still iconic and wildly quotable. It is a perverted playground of catawampus lunacy, confined almost completely to a single house with only occasional excursions to the Afterlife and a hellish Saturn desertscape. All of it is peppered with genuinely freakish stop-motion effects and an actual palpable zest for filmmaking; for taking styles, genres and straightforward studio comedy-writing and destroying them all from the inside. Beetlejuice, in every sense, was Burton’s first great, true original.
Somehow this quirky tale of middle class mores, death and exorcism (and sexual pestery) convinced Warner Bros. to offer Burton an even bigger job: Batman. The film itself was a major risk post-Superman, not to mention the helming choice; thankfully, Burton stepped up to the plate and delivered another stylised classic. Batman (1989) is an essential entry into both the directors’ and the genre’s canons; showing off Burton’s skill at weaving macabre personality into a high-budget genre piece, plus the superhero film’s potential to go dark.
Both Batman and Batman Returns (1992) are shamelessly lunatic (in every sense of the word). Burton’s great coup at this point was to mould existing properties into something decidedly untraditional, marginalising Batman and turning even The Penguin (a slobbering Danny DeVito) into a genuinely unhinged grotesque, far removed from any previous attempts: Burgess Meredith’s signature “Quaaaaack” from the ’60s series, for instance, is reinterpreted as a bilious snarl. Returns – somehow darker than its predecessor, which featured a memorably sadistic Jack Nicholson as The Joker – was twisted and child-unfriendly enough to get Burton kicked off the franchise. Historically, however, these incongruous high-budget excursions are crucial to later comic-book filmmaking and cemented Burton as a truly individual visionary. Artistically too, both Batman films hold up well: certainly, no filmmaker since has dared to draw such subversive strokes within the boundaries of a tightly-marshalled studio franchise (even within Christopher Nolan’s commendably intelligent versions, Bruce himself was never allowed to go full crazy to the same extent as Keaton’s deeply-felt performances). Fetishistic, carnivalesque, paranoid and brimming with psychosexual melancholy, Burton’s Batman films are a supreme example of taking a genre, building a world, and pushing both to the absolute straining limits.
Burton’s more beloved moments, however, came during his Gotham downtime. The far lower budgets of Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Ed Wood (1994) – plus The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Burton conceived, designed and produced but did not direct – kept the fantastical flourishes to a minimum, allowing instead a focus on character and plot.
Scissorhands is a deeply personal story about a mechanical boy whose inventor/Father dies before he can build real hands. Edward, encumbered with his long, sharp digits, is discovered alone in his Gothic castle by an Avon saleswoman, and brought down to the suburbs where he becomes the object of fascination, scorn, love and hatred. The ending, of course, is heartbreaking. Ed Wood – more commonly paired with Mars Attacks! for reasons we’ll clarify later – works as a companion piece, presenting another near-uncanny California populated by weirdoes. Burton, having grown up in Burbank and toiled at Disney, knew exactly how it felt to be an outsider around the shiny uniformity of these sprawling locales and both Edward and Ed – both of course played by Johnny Depp, sliding into his longstanding role as Burton’s avatar – fully express the burden of nonconformity and strange artistic visions. Indeed, Burton felt a kind of kinship with Wood, the “worst director of all time” who struggled with drug-addicted stars, compromised ideals and tabooed transvestism, and documents Wood’s wavering optimism beautifully. Both films – one a pastel-coloured satire, the other a monochrome ode to the outsider – are essential and complementary moments in Burton’s canon.
After a solid five-film run, Burton started more blatantly to indulge his love of genre pieces, resulting in two fairly patchy, though worthwhile, films (Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow) and one outright laughing stock in Planet of the Apes. Mars Attacks! (1996) represented Burton’s own attempt at an Ed Wood-style ’50s B-movie, with the starry ensemble – Nicholson, Brosnan, Bening et al. – of an Irwin Allen disaster film. While entertaining, it suffers from a lack of focus and arguably an autopiloted sense of existing only for itself; schlockily-designed Martians invading Earth, however, make for a fascinating and rather pure insight into this quirky director and the influences that make him tick.
Burton’s imaginative design and sense of humour are also present in Sleepy Hollow (1999), a rather witty and quite sumptuous take on Hammer horror, with attendant cameos from Christopher Lee and Michael Gough (both members of the Burton acting stable). For the first two-thirds it is one of Burton’s most successful exercises, though as it devolves into occultist twists it becomes less playful, more generic and thrillery: arguably the first of Burton’s great tonal missteps as he entered the new millennium. However, a truly committed Depp performance and award-winning cinematography and production design (from Emmanuel Lubezki and Rick Heinrichs, no less) keep the stormy, bloody Sleepy Hollow afloat as one of Burton’s more inspired moments.
Planet of the Apes (2001), on the other hand, is a molotov cocktail of Burton’s worst habits: the inability to say no to certain concepts, for instance; his lack of real filmmaking discipline and uncertainty with tone; his deeper focus on visuals than character (see also: most of his films from this point on). This is a plodding remake with absolutely nothing to say, particularly when compared to the political undertones that so recommend the original. Mark Wahlberg is game but undercooked, and Helena Bonham Carter – whose long artistic and romantic relationship with Burton began here – is only slightly better by virtue of having a vaguely more thought-out character. Still, there are nice and decadent visuals, and some truly impressive makeup work; despite being generally crappy, we can still watch Planet of the Apes and note the hand of a unique designer.
Big Fish (2003) also threatens to come apart in places – and, again, is mostly saved by the way it looks. The same principle holds for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Corpse Bride (2005). As with many of Burton’s films, these all deal with fraught father-son relationships, as well as a blurred fantasy-world existing on the very edges of storytelling. Big Fish is, for many, Burton’s most accomplished work – though again, some criticisms could be levelled at its length and structure. Edward (Albert Finney) has been a dedicated yarn-spinner for much of his life, though as his health worsens his son (Billy Crudup) becomes increasingly angry over these tall tales. This gives Burton a fine excuse to take us through haunted woods, distorted circuses and fantastical creatures while building, through the heroic efforts of his actors, an emotional journey rarely seen in his work.
We can discern Burton’s shortcomings as a filmmaker in his 2005 releases: Corpse Bride in particular suffers when compared to The Nightmare Before Christmas, both films being stop-motion fantasies yet one having been directed by Henry Selick. Corpse Bride is, as always, quite beautiful, but is hampered throughout by a relative lack of verve and a slightly too on-the-nose contrast between the desaturated land of the living and that of the dead, which is a colourful party. Depp plays the groom who accidentally proposes to Carter’s eponymous bride, and is taken on an accordingly whimsical adventure through the afterlife and back. Though it received Burton’s first personal Oscar nomination, for Best Animated Feature, Corpse Bride is distinctly forgettable for all but its design.
Much like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which promises to go darker than the 1970s version but never quite finds the balance. Willy Wonka himself is given an intelligent but mishandled backstory involving a dentist father (courtesy of Sir Christopher Lee), and admittedly seems to embody the more disconcertingly deliberate side of Wonka’s fateful tour more than Gene Wilder. Actually, it is moments like these that threaten to become brilliant – yet somewhere down the line Depp’s interpretation became too childish, resulting again in an uneven and uncertain tone that lacks the bite of Burton’s better studio outings. Imagine if he’d gone full Batman Returns on this latently horrifying story. At this point, the problem hit: though Burton chooses projects he’s genuinely inspired by, he rarely knows exactly what to do with them and instead throws a bunch of ideas at the wall. Whither the focus of earlier years?
Another relatively personal venture followed in 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Though adapted from the Stephen Sondheim musical – itself a telling of an old Victorian legend – Todd‘s dank London is built from the ground up and filled with stunning original flourishes. Most notable is probably Depp’s title character; the actor’s lack of real vocal training has proved divisive among musical purists, but his Bowie-esque ramblings and punk snarl are key to his necessarily stylised embodiment – Depp here became the second actor, after Ed Wood‘s Martin Landau, to receive an Oscar nomination for a Burton film. Todd, in fact, may be Burton’s late masterpiece, marrying his usual design-based focus to a no-holds-barred cinematographic style that is still to date his most adventurous. Burton’s actual filmmaking habits are usually rooted in fairly unambitious camera angles designed merely to show what’s literally happening; for Todd, he constructed some highly kinetic sequences, expressive choreography and genuine horrifying tension. It has the daring of Batman Returns, the emotional pull of Ed Wood and the storytelling sophistication of Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish.
Since Todd, none of Burton’s films are what you’d call “essential”: Alice in Wonderland (2010) made over a billion dollars, but is not particularly good. In fact, his usual stylistic brilliance came off as foggy and undersaturated, the film’s aesthetic merits mired in uninspired direction and a misconceived reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s surrealist olio as a tiresome quest narrative. Or, to put it another way: what was the fucking point? Dark Shadows (2012), a vampire comedy (yep), is probably tied with Apes for the director’s lowest ebb, while the animated Frankenweenie remake (2012) is well-liked but in many ways demonstrates what, exactly, has gone so wrong with the Burton machine this last decade: this Disney-sanctioned release takes place in a whitewashed suburbia wherein the most important message is familial acceptance. And again, stylistically, compare his own stop-motion outings to those of more practised masters – there is something overtly toy-boxy and lacking in ambition.
Big Eyes (2014) was, for a while, one of the most exciting upcoming dramas before revealing itself to be a major tonal misfire, the sort of poorly-conceived piece of amateur direction that should’ve been beneath such a long-standing veteran. If Burton directed his lead actors at all, it was badly: Christoph Waltz seems to be acting in three different films, none of which are the same as that of Amy Adams, who for her own part has only one setting for the full two hours. There is some sympathy, but no real expression of this. Like Frankenweenie, any subversive touches are by the end flattened out into something shiny and homogenised – ultimately neither are particularly strange films.
Perhaps Burton has simply grown up, and no longer wants to be an enfant terrible. This is fine, and for a lot of filmmakers can be fruitful. But Burton’s style has not matured, and his themes and messages seem even simpler than they were 20 years ago. A simple problem is at work here: as a director, was Burton ever allowed a truly experimental period? To go from a couple of shorts, created with the spirit of a dedicated illustrator, to three large studio features with no formal filmmaking training save a penchant for “bad” movies, forces one to learn how to get a job done – not grow as an individual. Think of the greats, going through film school, advertising, music videos – or just toiling on features with no money for years, or sitting and studying favourite movies a la much of the ’90s generation that Burton just missed out on. No, Burton suddenly found himself with money, and accordingly populated his features with meticulous design, without learning how to develop his own language. It doesn’t help that after such a long string of successes, Disney ate their words and started throwing funding at him again. Who needs to exert effort anymore after making a billion?
Tim Burton, for the sheer look of his films, remains one of the studio greats – but with a mind as brilliantly askew as his, think what could’ve been.
Top 5 Tim Burton Films:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – Johnny Depp sings, snarls and slashes throats in this musical revenge-quest. Victorian barber Todd, still mourning for his raped and murdered wife, slaughters customers for pies in the search for the corrupt judge who did the deed. All involved soar.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) – A genuine weepie, concerning an ‘uncommonly gentle man’ built by an eccentric inventor – who dies before he can give Edward real hands. When lonely Edward is discovered by Dianne Wiest’s caring suburban mother, a witty, beautiful and horribly tragic modern-day Frankenfable ensues.
Beetlejuice (1988) – Comfortable young couple Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis experience a car crash; upon returning to their beloved house, it turns out they’re dead, months have transpired and a yuppie family have moved in. Enter Betelgeuse, a lascivious rogue demon with some unorthodox methods to win the house back. A near-perfect and completely unique haunted-house comedy.
Ed Wood (1994) – Biopic of the legendary “worst director of all time”, whose productions were hampered by disappearing budgets, sudden deaths and general ineptitude. Burton, and the audience, adores the subject played to perfection by a fizzing, ever-optimistic Johnny Depp. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his borderline caricature of Bela Lugosi – the other standout from a strong, oddball ensemble.
Batman Returns (1992) – At the very least, this is a majestic evocation of a mental headspace; possibly, 70 years after the fact, one of the greatest German Expressionist films ever made. The Bat, the Cat and the Penguin are locked in a battle of almost psychosexual power in a wintry Gotham in which everything – including, admittedly, the script – threatens to come apart at the seams. Forever Burton’s boldest moment, which is really saying something.
Have we been too harsh on Burton? Or did we just screw up his Top Five? Either way, let us know your thoughts!