As Halloween movie season approaches, families around the world are getting ready to carve pumpkins and offer some delightful frights. In a symbiotic relationship with Halloween is Hollywood’s horror film industrial complex, which churns out horror movies at an alarming rate, especially in the autumn months. In the contemporary film landscape, few have influenced (and have been influenced by) horror cinema as much as auteur Tim Burton — even though he’s never really made a proper horror movie.
Burton rose to prominence in the mid and late 1980’s, as his unique Halloween-inflected films took a critical look at America’s middle class and the relentless conventionality it demanded. His eye-catching aesthetic, inspired by German expressionism and the history of haunted cinema, gave a different visual context to stories about loners and those who felt maligned by mainstream society.
Burton eventually took on superheroes, sci-fi classics, and (more recently) Disney fantasies — with varying levels of success. Although his earliest works were lauded by critics, it’s true that lately the quality of his films has hit a bit of a plateau — and his resistance to diversity isn’t exactly helping his case.
Nonetheless, despite our newfound political awareness around specific issues, the films of Burton have a special place in the history of American cinema and in the hearts of goths and punks throughout the globe. We’re taking a look at his filmography and separating the essentials from what you’d be better off skipping.
The promotional images of CGI Dumbo painted up in ghastly clown makeup were so aesthetically hideous that even die-hard Burton fans tried to ignore this soulless monstrosity of a movie. Like all of Disney’s live-action reboots, there’s something relentlessly and unapologetically cash grab-y about this remake that even the artistry of Burton couldn’t save.
Think of this as Tim Burton’s X-Men: a story of super-powered children living in an eccentric mansion, tasked with saving the world. Peregrine got pretty good reviews upon its release, but there was something nauseating about the film’s incessant use of CGI — especially considering Burton’s penchant for gorgeous practical effects back in the day.
Yes, this film is mind-numbingly corny and packed to the brim with painfully delivered dialogue from Burton’s favorite actor, Johnny Depp. But if you can push aside the absurdities and tedious performances, there’s a certain Scooby Doo-like charm to this vampiric fairy tale. It’s in no way a good film, but a handful of design choices elevate this movie from complete dreck. It’s at least a little bit fun.
It would seem that Tim Burton was destined to re-make Alice in Wonderland given the psychedelic and deceptively nightmarish world of the original children’s story. Unfortunately, obviously inspired by the runaway success of high fantasy franchises like the Lord of the Rings, Burton transforms Alice’s quaint travels into a battle between warring kingdoms that no one could possibly care about. Hot tip: if you put the film on mute and play some cool music, Alice functions perfectly as a really exciting music video or fashion showcase. The CGI throughout is cringe-inducing, but the looks delivered by costume designer (and frequent Burton collaborator) Colleen Atwood are beyond stunning.
Frankenweenie functions as a cute little distillation of Burton’s entire thesis: sometimes there’s more heart in what’s seen as grotesque than in what’s normally glorified as “good.” No new territory is covered in this adorable stop-motion movie, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with it.
Musical theater aficionados to this day rage about the Burton’s decision to depict Mrs. Lovett as darkly sexy instead of monstrous — but Burton’s adaptation of the classic musical mostly does get at the spirit of the source material rather well. The CGI backgrounds are a little nauseating but strong performances and an on-brand (if not predictable) mise-en-scene makes this a relatively OK entry in Burton’s oeuvre.
Charlie was sort of destined to fail even before the project got greenlit: Who could possibly live up to Gene Wilder?! Depp can’t, that’s for sure. While his cartoon-y interpretation of Willy Wonka is original, it’s nowhere near as charming. That being said, the anachronistic and expressionistic worlds of Burton’s Charlie are actually pretty clever and often pretty cool looking.
Burton isn’t exactly known for super-serious sci-fi and Apes doesn’t quite make a good case for him being given similar projects in the future — but it’s not a bad movie! Critics rightly praised the intricate practical effects, makeup design, and costuming of the movie — and rightly criticized the film’s time warp-y ending (which, to be fair, is actually fairly faithful to the book on which the movie is based). Danny Elfman’s score is, as per usual, amazing.
Similarly out of Burton’s range is super-serious melodrama: Big Eyes garnered important award nominations from BAFTA and the Golden Globes but is a bit of a snooze. Lacking the darkly whimsical stylistic flourishes that have established Burton as an icon, Big Eyes tells the story of real-life artist Margaret Keane, whose haunting portraits of children were stolen by her abusive husband. It’s a great metaphor for the ways women are denigrated in the art world, but as a movie it was mostly just boring.
Burton took a lot of creative liberties with Washington Irving’s spooky short story, transforming protagonist Ichabod Crane from a gangly, effeminate school teacher into a darkly handsome and deeply lovelorn forensic scientist — but the movie expands on the small universe of the original text making for a deliciously styled Halloween treat. It’s a fun, unserious adventure film with special effects that range from hilariously outdated to unendingly endearing.
It was easy for critics and audiences alike to roll their eyes at Corpse Bride, which seemed almost like a parody of Tim Burton’s biggest clichés more than an actual movie. But even the most ardent critics couldn’t deny the absurdly detailed craftwork of this stop-motion animated movie, featuring gorgeously constructed, handmade fantasy worlds. Thematically it was all a bit obvious, but the truly awe-inspiring musical sequences are as beautiful as they are macabre.
A sendup to the campy sci-fi films of the 1950’s, Mars Attacks! is a comedic pastiche about aggressive invaders from another planet. Although there’s little emotional weight to the film, the performances are all hilariously over the top and Burton’s impressive and unique object styling is at its most fully realized. The scene of a femoid alien pretending to be human, with her immensely coiffed hair and legendary white and red spiral dress, will surely be remembered as an iconic moment of interplanetary drag.
Although Christopher Nolan is more widely celebrated as a Batman director these days (when will filmmakers grow weary of grimdark pseudo-realism?!), Burton truly understands the balance between seriousness and silliness that more accurately captures the spirit of the original comics better than any other director. Jack Nicholson is, of course, beyond iconic as The Joker. Michael Keaton as the eponymous hero, however, is … less memorable.
The demented, childishly innocent world of Pee-wee Herman had captured the imagination of youngsters (and adults!) for years before he set out from his fanciful home and onto stranger adventures. Burton’s exaggerated interpretation of reality matched Reubens’ manic energy perfectly. Despite its various eccentricities, there’s a real, sincere sweetness to this movie missing from a lot of media meant for kids or grown-ups. Reubens is at the height of his powers here as well, never breaking character for even a moment.
In what is easily the most stylish superhero ever made, Burton transforms the world of Gotham into something far more magically real than Bob Kane and Bill Finger could have ever imagined. Burton had strayed quite far from the source material — he took a lot of creative liberties reimagining Selina Kyla as a BDSM-inflected, scorned secretary resurrected by her pets after a fatal fall. Forget Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway, Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer are easily the greatest Batman rogues gallery members ever, and their performances — dripping in a kind of putrid glamour — are unforgettable.
It’s not exactly surprising that Burton had an affinity for the notorious schlock artist, Ed Wood, whose status as a morbid outsider in the film industry wound up with him leaving behind a remarkable and wildly underappreciated body of work. Ed Wood explores the social alienation that having an affinity for darkness inevitably brings about — but also highlights the community and kindness of those too often deemed strange. Performances are strong across the board with this ensemble cast — Lisa Marie is devastatingly gorgeous playing Malia Nurmi, better known by her stage name, Vampira.
At the time of its release, there were rumors circulating that Big Fish was to be Burton’s final film — those proved to be incorrect, but what a send off it would have been. Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a whimsical coming-of-age story about the tall tales a young boy’s father tells him about the past. Burton treated the material with reverence, turning the exaggerated adventures into a beautiful visual poem featuring witches, giants, mermaids, and other assorted circus folk. Burton’s affinity for magical realism is sort of explained through the question this movie asks: What if the fictional fantasies our ancestors tell us are actually, in some ways, more real than reality?
Edward Scissorhands is a suburban fairy tale: A sci-fi Romeo and Juliet painted in delicate pastels. The insidious conformity of the American middle class is questioned when the eponymous mechanical hero wanders out of the haunted castle from whence he came. Depp, playing a heavily scarred and curiously endowed android of sorts, becomes the town’s latest curiosity before they drive him away due to their xenophobia. It’s a strong metaphor for the way American identity has always been formulated around the expulsion of anything that doesn’t resemble the status quo. Burton’s depiction of an everyday Levittown is stunningly beautiful, with the perfect amount of grotesquery thrown in.
Describing Beetlejuice as a horror-comedy isn’t inaccurate, but the movie’s so much more than that. An existential contemplation on the afterlife, a gothic fashion showcase, a meditation on social alienation, a hilarious pastiche of horror tropes: For a movie that at times is unapologetically juvenile, Beetlejuice somehow spans several genres and succeeds in each category. Michael Keaton has never been better than as the titular “bio-exorcist” and Winona Ryder as Lydia Deetz has become one of the most iconic gothic characters in cinema history. Catherine O’Hara deserves endless praise for her possessed lip-sync of Harry Belafonte’s Day-O. Every set is absolutely breathtaking in its detail and styling, every outfit is perfectly curated, every note in Danny Elfman’s score achieves the perfect balance between silly and menacing. It’s no wonder the movie has essentially spawned an entire subculture of goth aficionados, who seem to celebrate the movie’s Halloween-y spirit year round.
Although widely associated with Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas was not actually directed by Tim Burton — he was, in fact, the film’s producer. Burton’s macabre vision obviously guided the film’s entire aesthetic, but animator Henry Selick is who executed this classic. The iconography of Nightmare Before Christmas, originally conceived by Burton, has become ubiquitous amongst a plethora of goth subcultures — and it remains a testament to the emotional power of stop motion animation. Danny Elfman’s musical arrangements are shockingly moving, and the character designs and overall mise-en-scéne of the film remains wholly original. If we were to forego the technicality about Burton’s role in the creation of the film, we’d put this movie right between Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
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