Hollywood’s Favourite Outsider: Tim Burton, Director
It was all the chimp’s fault. During my early years as a movie buff, I considered myself a bit of a Tim Burton fan. But then came Planet of the Apes. He still made some good movies after that ill-advised remake (see the list below), but that was the moment when I started to turn on the director.
In case you missed it, the movie opens as a research station in deep space encounters an electromagnetic storm. The scientists stick a chimpanzee into a space pod and shoot it into the anomaly to check it out. Mark Wahlberg’s stoic astronaut chases after his primate buddy and ends up on a monkey planet.
Come the film’s climactic battle scene, Wahlberg is getting his butt kicked by an evil ape. It looks like curtains for our hero, but what’s that? Could it possibly be? Yes, at the eleventh hour, the chimp explorer blasts into the scene in his pod to distract the apes, flipping back his visor and giving a cheeky thumbs up.
I spend way too much time thinking about that scene. My mind drifts back to it while I’m in the supermarket, on the tram, or in the middle of a conversation. What was Burton thinking? What kind of reaction did he expect it would arouse from the audience? In the screening I was in, there was a mix of flabbergasted groans and derisive laughter. By the time the infamous twist rolled round, everyone was ready to start ripping up chairs.
It has largely been downhill from there over 20 mostly tiresome years for Burton, but that still doesn’t destroy his legacy as one of Hollywood’s most visionary film-makers of the past four decades. Ever fascinated with kooks and outsiders, he has a visual style as strong as any other director from the same period, and an eccentric sensibility that distinguishes his movies from most regular fare. When he’s on form, you certainly can’t mistake a Burton film for the work of anyone else.
His second film, Beetlejuice, celebrated its 35th anniversary recently, which got me thinking about how I would rank Burton’s better movies. Here is how that played out…
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Following the Planet of the Apes debacle, I marched into the theatre with a pitchfork and flaming torch to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I absolutely hated it at the time, and for a long while I treated it with as much contempt as his Chimp-plagued previous remake.
After watching it several times more recently with my kids, I now hold two very unpopular opinions: Tim Burton’s version is actually a pretty good adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, and Johnny Depp’s bizarre performance as the eccentric confectioner is just as memorable as Gene Wilder’s beloved turn in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
Putting aside the uncanny valley special effects and the decision to cast Deep Roy as all of the Oompa Loompas, it’s an entertaining spin on the material and Depp’s peculiar character choices give us a totally different angle on Mr Wonka. Here, he is a reclusive crackpot with very poor social skills and a general horror of children, which often makes his terrified grand tour hilarious. His entrance is almost as good as Wilder’s, too.
9. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton’s over-reliance on Johnny Depp as his go-to leading man eventually became irritating, reaching its nadir in the horrible Alice in Wonderland. Still, there is no denying that the director found a soulmate in the charismatic actor, who put in another distinctively quirky performance in Sleepy Hollow.
In this lavishly spooky adaptation of Washington Irving’s famous tale, Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a mild-mannered New York copper renowned for his scientific methods. He’s called into the titular fog-shrouded hamlet to investigate a series of grisly beheadings, setting him on collision course with the fearsome Headless Horseman.
The plot is a throwaway conspiracy mystery, but the director and his design team use it as a jumping off point to create a wonderfully chilling Burtonesque supernatural horror. The film looks a treat and the excellent supporting cast is stacked with British thesps, Burton regulars, and ‘90s up-and-comers (Christina Ricci and, er… Casper Van Dien). It also doesn’t hurt to have the Horseman played with ferocious relish by Christopher Walken.
8. Batman Returns (1992)
After the blockbusting success of Batman, Tim Burton received the keys to the kingdom for his hotly anticipated sequel, Batman Returns. I know many Burton fans consider it superior to the original because it is a purer distillation of the director’s vision, and he revels in pushing the Expressionistic production design of Gotham City to the limit. The film also benefits from strong performances by Michelle Pfieffer, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Walken as Catwoman, the Penguin, and ruthless tycoon Max Schreck respectively.
For me, the film is almost too much of a good thing. The colourful roster of villains has the effect of making Batman feel like a side character in his own movie, and Burton seems more interested in using it as a sandbox for his striking Gothic visuals. The pacing and narrative suffers as a result, lacking the rocket-boosted drive of his original hit.
It’s still worth it for the classic moments, but I also can’t escape the feeling that the wackier elements paved the way for the even more cartoonish exploits of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, which sank the franchise until Christopher Nolan rebooted the Caped Crusader again with Batman Begins.
7. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This may be a bit of a cheat and a disservice to Henry Selick, the brilliant stop-motion animator who made his directorial debut with the film, but The Nightmare Before Christmas has Tim Burton’s unmistakable fingerprints all over it. Beginning with his original poem, he also created storyboards, concept art, and produced the movie, but didn’t want to direct because he felt the stop-motion process was too painstaking.
The macabre tale introduces us to spindly Jack Skellington, Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who stumbles on neighbouring Christmas Town (“What’s this?”) and decides that he wants to get in on the festive action. He’s well-meaning but his spooky tendencies run amok, turning Christmas into a ghoulish shit-show.
If I’m honest, I find most of the songs clankingly hard on the ears and, despite the film’s trim running time, the story is a little flaky and repetitive. Nevertheless, any reservations are dwarfed by the sheer level of imagination on display, and Selick’s stop-motion animation is a thing of joy. Thanks to its dual festivities, it also makes a great pick for both a Halloween and a Christmas movie that will delight the sinister little minds of kids.
6. Beetlejuice (1988)
The casting of Michael Keaton caused a major stir among Batfans when he was picked to play Bruce Wayne and his shadowy crime-fighting alter-ego in Batman. Regarded mainly as a lightly comic actor at that point, many felt that he wouldn’t have the gravitas for the part. Those concerns should have been allayed by Beetlejuice, where Keaton warmed up for the role by showing his darker side.
Toned down significantly from Michael McDowell’s original grim and violent screenplay, Keaton plays Beetlejuice, a chaotic supernatural entity summoned by a recently deceased couple (baby-faced Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) to scare a yuppie family out of their home.
The film is pretty hit and miss at times, and Keaton’s mumbling performance as the lascivious “bio-exorcist” is uneven. When the movie hits, though, it really hits, with outrageous flashes of inspiration. A visit to a waiting room in the afterlife, populated by a hilarious array of grotesquely disfigured spirits, is a hoot; and the great scene when Beetlejuice forces the obnoxious family to dance to Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” is irresistible.
5. Batman (1989)
For the many millions of us who were unfamiliar with the adventures of the Caped Crusader other than the campy ‘60s TV show, Tim Burton’s Batman came as a bit of a shock. It looked so moody, dark, and violent by comparison. Now we have had Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, gloomy Batfleck in the DCU, and Robert Pattinson’s emo version, it looks somewhere between the poles. Nevertheless, Burton tamped down his whimsical tendencies to deliver a propulsive blockbuster that was one of the biggest hits of the ‘80s.
Michael Keaton answered his critics by putting in a surprisingly thoughtful turn, gliding between cool flippancy and brooding introspection that suited the character well. For his archnemesis, Jack Nicholson was the studio’s preferred choice for years. His outsized screen persona seemed so perfect for the character that it was hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but big names including Robin Williams, John Lithgow, Ray Liotta, and David Bowie were all in the frame at some point.
Danny Elfman provided another iconic score and the only real bum notes are the bland miscasting of Kim Basinger as reporter Vicki Vale and the Prince songs shoehorned into the film. Otherwise, it was an instant popcorn classic, cleaning up at the box office and re-shaping the way people thought about superheroes and superhero movies.
4. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee-Wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, was big in the ‘80s, developing his unique comic man-child persona on stage and TV before becoming an unlikely leading man in Tim Burton’s directorial debut.
Pee-Wee is an acquired taste but Reubens toned down his act to appeal to a wider audience, and it paid off. The film was a box office success and marked Burton as an exciting young talent to look out for.
The film bursts with zany energy and it had me at “hello,” as Pee-Wee awakens from a dream about winning the Tour De France on his beloved bicycle and heads down for breakfast, prepared by his wacky Rube Goldberg-style breakfast machine. When his bike is stolen, he embarks on a cross-country journey to recover it, culminating in a wild chase through the Warner Bros studios.
Plot-wise, it’s an excuse for Ruebens to reel out a bunch of leftfield set-pieces for his character, from dancing to “Tequila” in a roughneck biker’s bar to a chilling encounter with Large Marge, a spectral truck driver with a nasty surprise for her passenger. Burton keeps the film moving at quite a lick, amped up by Danny Elfman’s giddy carnivalesque score, his first of many with the director.
3. Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish was originally intended as a project for Steven Spielberg, but it fell to Tim Burton and became one of his most heartfelt movies. His parents both passed away recently before production, and that certainly seemed to help him form a close personal connection with the material.
It’s a rambling shaggy-dog story about Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, and played as a younger man by Ewan McGregor), an incorrigible fantasist whose endless tall tales get on the nerves of his estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup). When Will spends time with his dying dad on his deathbed, he gradually realises that some part of Edward’s stories are based in reality, before spinning a yarn of his own to comfort the old man as he passes away.
The fantasy sequences are as imaginative and charming as you’d expect in a Tim Burton film, but the real meat and potatoes is the relationship between father and son, played so naturally by Finney and Crudup. It is perhaps Burton’s most emotional films to date, resonating on a human level despite all the stuff about witches, giants, and mermaids. Just thinking about that ending gets me choked up!
2. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Edward Scissorhands was Burton’s first collaboration with Johnny Depp, with whom the director felt an instant kinship. The actor had become a heartthrob thanks to the TV show 21 Jump Street, but the photogenic Depp felt more at home playing misfits and outsiders. This made him the perfect muse for Burton and, to date, they have made seven more features together. Over 30 years on, the young man with scissors for hands remains one of Depp’s defining roles.
There is a strong autobiographical element to Edward Scissorhands. Burton has said that his childhood in sunny California was a lonely one, where he felt alienated and would rather sit indoors watching old horror flicks than play outside with the other kids. As a budding artist, Burton drew a gaunt figure with blades for fingers, which would become one of his most tender creations as a grown-up director.
It starts out as a beautifully realised fish-out-of-water comedy as Edward is taken from the gothic mansion overlooking a kitschy suburb to live with the family of a kindly Avon lady (Dianne Wiest). After he falls for her daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) and the community turns on him, it becomes a poignant romantic fairy-tale with an ending guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye.
1. Ed Wood (1994)
I’m a big fan of Edward D. Wood Jr, the low-budget director behind notoriously bad movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, so Burton’s affectionate biopic was the only real contender for top spot.
When Wood passed away in 1978, he was broke, alcoholic, and had never achieved fame in his lifetime. He might have been forgotten altogether if it wasn’t for the booming interest in terrible films that took off in the ‘80s. Also key to his posthumous success was The Golden Turkey Awards, the book from the Medved Brothers which labelled Wood the worst director in the world. Later, 1992 saw the arrival of two key texts for Wood Fans: Rudolph Grey’s exhaustive biography Nightmare of Ecstasy, and the tongue-in-cheek documentary Flying Saucers Over Hollywood.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had only written those awful Problem Child movies at that point, based their screenplay on Grey's book. However, they opted to leave the film on an optimistic note rather than chart Wood’s pitiful later years. Their celebration of the ultimate Hollywood outside fell to Tim Burton, who had always been a fan of Wood’s movies and saw a parallel between his relationship with his own idol, Vincent Price, and the friendship between Wood and a fading Bela Lugosi in the ‘50s.
Shot in elegant black and white, Burton’s lovely film champions Wood’s enthusiasm, thrift-store ingenuity, and pure love for cinema rather than snark at the shoddiness of his productions. To capture Wood’s exuberance, Burton turned again to Johnny Depp, who breezily plays the Z-grade auteur as a wide-eyed innocent with a fondness for angora sweaters.
Casting is perhaps one of Burton’s most under-appreciated talents and Ed Wood is stacked with a wonderful gallery of supporting actors. Chief among them are Martin Landau, who deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi; Patricia Arquette as Kathy, the love of Wood’s life; and Bill Murray, who steals the show as Bunny Breckinridge, a hapless friend of Ed’s who dreams of becoming a woman.
Somewhat appropriately given the subject matter, Ed Wood was Burton’s first box office failure. Since then, it has become a cult classic, especially among Wood fans and bad movie aficionados.
So there you have it, my top 10 Tim Burton movies, ranked. Do you agree? What would be your picks? Let us know!