Ranking the Films of Tim Burton From ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ to ‘Big Eyes’
The release of ‘Big Eyes’ marks the 17th film of director Tim Burton and one of the biggest departures in his 30 year career as a feature filmmaker. A seemingly straightforward drama about painter Margaret Keane, the movie sees one of the most fantastical filmmakers in the world making a rare trip back down to Earth.
To mark the occasion, we delved into Burton’s filmography with one mission: to rank his films from worst to best. Some choices were easy (he’s made some really lousy films) and others were difficult (he’s made a handful of genuinely great movies), and through it all, he proved to be fascinating, often maddening subject. Few directors stoke the ire of movie fans quite like Burton, but when he’s on point, no one can do what he does.
The nadir of Tim Burton’s career came with a project that would have been truly exciting if it had been made a decade or two earlier. Burton’s whimsical, surreal, and off-kilter aesthetic is seemingly perfect for a live action take on ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but the chief failure of this adaptation is that it is not true to the spirit of its filmmaker or its source material.
It would have been easy to forgive a movie that deviated from a beloved novel if there was even a glimpse of Burton’s spirit in this production, but there is none to be found. He simply channels Peter Jackson and attempts to turn a fantasy story that is nothing like ‘Lord of the Rings’ into ‘Lord of the Rings.’ What we have here is a loud, ugly, nightmarish mess filled with grating performances and nonsensical writing. The only person who should be more ashamed of this movie than Burton is Johnny Depp, whose Mad Hatter is the single worst character to appear in a major blockbuster in ... ever?
To its credit, Tim Burton’s remake of the 1968 science fiction classic ‘Planet of the Apes’ goes out of its way to avoid emulating the original film and offer a unique experience. Unfortunately, it does so by removing everything that made the original film so thrilling. Brainy, bold sci-fi has been replaced with Big Dumb Action. Charlton Heston has been replaced by Mark Wahlberg. The famous twist ending has been replaced by a new ending so nonsensical that it’s hard to believe that anyone saw those script pages and said “Yeah, this is okay.”
Like the worst of Burton’s movies, ‘Planet of the Apes’ is distinctly not him. By dialing back on his quirks, Burton reveals his inability to tell a story this far outside of his typical wheelhouse. And that’s a shame. What would a Tim Burton ‘Planet of the Apes’ look like if he went full ‘Batman Returns’ crazy? That’s a question for an alternate timeline.
‘Dark Shadows’ is such a peculiar and off-beat movie that it actually feels just plain wrong to rank it this low. And yet, peculiar and off-beat do not translate into “good.” This stunningly weird movie is a mess, but at least it’s a memorable mess, taking a largely forgotten ’60s supernatural soap opera and transforming it into an oddball period piece comedy about vampires, witches, family dynamics and the New England fishing industry.
However, this grab bag of genuine weirdness ultimately never adds up to much. You can appreciate individual scenes or performances (Eva Green, the patron saint of bad movies, is spectacular), but the meandering story and its countless characters never really gel into a satisfying experience. By the time the conclusion (with its incomprehensible CGI destruction) rolls around, you can be forgiven for having checked out long ago.
Like ‘Dark Shadows,’ ‘Mars Attacks!’ has its heart in the right place. Actually, it has no heart and that’s kind of the point: This is the darkest, meanest, nastiest movie in Tim Burton’s filmography, a comedy that delights in pain, suffering, and mass destruction. Now, if only it were actually funny...
On paper, it sounds like it should work. Although based on a series of (genuinely horrifying) trading cards released in 1962, ‘Mars Attacks!’ is really a spoof of ’50s B-movies and ’70s ensemble disaster movies. Burton packs the cast with a jaw-dropping number of beloved movie stars and proceeds to have them incinerated, decapitated, tortured, and mutilated by an army of Martians whose only motivation in their invasion of Earth is to have a good time. It’s a twisted idea (a great idea, even), but the film ultimately feels like a series of gags rather than a movie, with the hit-to-miss ratio of the too-few jokes falling on the “miss” side way too often. As it stands now, ‘Mars Attacks!’ is a gloriously trashy curiosity, but it’s easy to imagine what could have been.
‘Corpse Bride’ is essentially a half-assed ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ a stop-motion musical that is as lightweight and frothy as it is gorgeously made. It feels like Burton and his co-director Mike Johnson deliberately set out to capture the gothic, grotesque sweetness that Henry Selick perfected with his now-beloved holiday horror tale of Jack Skellington, a film that is frequently, incorrectly attributed to Burton. (He was just a producer.) The results are mixed.
It’s hard to talk about ‘Corpse Bride’ without directly comparing it to ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ which is admittedly unfair. Despite advances in stop-motion technology, ‘Corpse Bride’ is a more standard experience, relying heavily on exposition and generic, studio-template plot points. Whereas Selick’s stop-motion tale was an absurdist opera (and a legitimately great movie), ‘Corpse Bride’ is boilerplate, struggling to achieve the same tone and walk that same fine line between fun and grotesque.
Actually, that’s too harsh. ‘Corpse Bride’ is fine. The songs are fine. The voice performances are fine. It’s a fine movie that just so happens to look absolutely stunning. However, when it comes to stop-motion animated movies, Burton had produced better before and he would direct better later.
Tim Burton tends to be at his worst when he indulges himself and panders to each and every one of his of personal tropes. So what happens when he overcompensates in the other direction? ‘Big Eyes’ happens and it’s a tough film to digest when placed in the context of the rest of his filmography.
On one level, Burton is doing exactly what he should have been doing for the past few years. With this low key comic drama, he’s throwing out all of usual toys and trying something genuinely different and new. Without his crutches, Burton finds himself perfectly capable of making a down-to-earth movie about fairly normal people involved in a weird, but completely believable plot. In Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, he directs two leads who are not Johnny Depp into giving solid performances. ‘Big Eyes’ is no masterpiece. It’s a nice movie, a pleasant movie, a shaggy, perfectly entertaining shrug of an experience ... but it doesn’t feel like it was directed by Tim Burton.
Even in his most stripped-down and “realistic” movies (like ‘Ed Wood,’ which we will be talking about in a bit), Burton’s touch is evident in every frame. In fact, he’s often at his best when his weirdo obsessions lurk around the fringes of the film. But ‘Big Eyes’ is lacking in any kind of personal touch. Anyone could have directed this movie, which makes us wonder why Burton chose to make this movie in the first place. As nice as it is to see him try something so different (and he should keep on pursuing projects like this), it’s disconcerting to see so little of his voice.
Burton’s adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ had one huge problem hanging over its head from the moment of its inception: the mere existence of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’ That original 1971 adaptation may be loathed by Dahl purists, but it remains well-liked by film buffs thanks to its surreal, terrifying tone and its incredible lead performance from Gene Wilder.
So Burton, screenwriter John August, and star Johnny Depp set out to make a movie that was more faithful to the source material. The results aren’t bad. A few new subplots aside, the film does stick fairly close to the source text, but it’s a more standard and ever-so-slightly bland experience. It‘s a good movie, but it feels so normal compared to the first film.
Although it is odd that a master of the weird like Burton couldn’t out-weird Mel Stuart, the film itself is a good time. Its colorful and strange, with Johnny Depp giving a surprisingly endearing performance as the eccentric Wonka (who falls somewhere between Michael Jackson and a ’70s children’s show host). It may lack Dahl’s vicious bite, but it’s a faithful and extremely entertaining adaptation. Most importantly, everything in it looks delicious.
Here’s how bizarre Burton’s film adaptation of the beloved stage musical ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is: It’s one of his ten best movies even though it’s a bombastic, operatic musical populated entirely by people who really can’t sing.
Burton chose to cast frequent collaborators like Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the lead roles instead of seasoned musical performers and the results are, well, odd. Neither performer (nor the bulk of the supporting cast) has the vocal range to do Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant songs real justice ... and yet, they‘re compelling performances all the same. The singing itself isn‘t great, but every actor nails the emotional beats of every number. Burton probably didn’t set out to make a flashier version of ‘Romance and Cigarettes’ or ‘Everyone Says I Love You’ (which were constructed around the gimmick of “normal” people breaking into song), but that’s pretty much what he’s done.
Singing aside, the rest of the film is right up Burton’s alley. Gruesome and hilarious and tragic, ‘Sweeney Todd’ is a story of cannibalism, murder, and revenge that is one part Shakespearian tragedy and one part comedic farce. It’s a brilliantly odd show and thanks to Burton’s gorgeous, gothic style, it makes for one helluva good looking movie. Burton probably could have made a better film if he cast actual singers, but the results here are too fascinating to argue with. This is the film he made. It works in spite of its flaws, and its flaws make it all the more interesting. (But Burton was a fool for cutting the introductory number “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” A fool!)
The feature version of a short that Burton made way back before his directorial debut, ‘Frankenweenie’ easily feels like the most personal film he’s made in the past decade. In fact, the film must have been Disney’s way of thanking him for the countless millions ‘Alice in Wonderland’ made for the studio. After all, there was no way they would approve a black and white stop-motion movie about a zombie dog unless they wanted to keep him happy.
After all of the commercial endeavors Burton has attached himself to in recent years, ‘Frankenweenie’ is a refreshing throwback to a time when he was unafraid to be gross and off-putting. This movie is more in line with the truly eccentric films of his past than the packaged, plastic, ”Hot Topic weirdness” he often makes today. It has its fair share of problems (it’s a little too slight, a little too sentimental), but it’s a fun romp that gets bonus points for its surprisingly on-point pro-science message.
Naturally, it made no money. Go figure.
Everyone saw ‘Batman.’ Everyone. Those who were alive and cognizant in 1989 will be able to tell you where and when they saw it in theaters. Others wore out their VHS copy throughout the ’90s. For a little while, the world went Batman-crazy. You can thank Burton and this film for setting the stage for the modern superhero movie craze. It simply wouldn’t exist without this film.
And yet ‘Batman’ feels nothing like the movies it would later inspire. It has no loyalty to its comic book source material. It doesn’t set the stage for a sequel. And it’s weird. Darkly, unpleasantly weird. It’s gross in a way that modern blockbusters could never be. It has been said that Burton’s ‘Batman’ is a bad Batman movie, but a terrific Tim Burton movie. This is accurate.
Fans of Christopher Nolan’s grittier, more “realistic” ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy can nitpick this movie all day, but it’s impossible to deny that Burton was doing something really special here. There is no reality to this movie. It’s a fantasy, first and foremost, a surreal, unsettling journey through a beautifully crafted landscape where every nightmare you’ve ever had can come true. Burton may not get Batman and The Joker, but he certainly understands the landscape that could produce such eccentric, monstrous creations. In an era where every comic book movie blends into the next, singular, flawed, and fascinating visions like this are a wonder to behold.
Although Burton has a distinct visual style that unites most of his filmography, there is one trend that stands out most prominently: His love of losers, outcasts, and freaks. His sympathy for those on the fringes of society runs through the bulk of his work and when Burton’s at his best, it feels like he is making movies that would have comforted his young, lonely self. Which is why he made a Batman movie that barely features Batman.
‘Batman Returns’ is an even weaker Batman movie than its predecessor, but it’s an even better Tim Burton movie. He dials up the grotesque and the gothic, blowing off things like action, adventure, and the title character in order to make room for more of his personal strain of weirdness. This is a good thing: we have plenty of Batman movies, but we have precious few movies about a mutated sewer-dwelling freak who runs for mayor, kidnaps children with the help of a circus gang, and runs afoul of a local vigilante.
As The Penguin, Danny DeVito is the stuff of nightmares. As Catwoman, Michelle Pfeifer is the gold standard comic book movie anti-heroine. As orchestrator of a madcap fever dream of rubber and latex and black goo and mayhem, Tim Burton is at the top of his game.
Elements of gothic horror run throughout many of Burton’s films, but ‘Sleepy Hollow’ marks the first and only time he’s made an actual horror movie. And wouldn’t you know it, the results are stylish, gruesome, and superb. Maybe he should try this more often?
‘Sleepy Hollow’ is loosely based on Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ but Burton takes that classic American story and twists it into a stylized tale of terror that would make the German expressionists of the 1920s smile. Also smiling: fans of classy, old school horror (who appreciate the film’s slickness and respect for its genre), fans of modern horror (there’s gore aplenty), and, of course, traditional Tim Burton fans (because this thing is chock-full of the director’s trademark style).
This really is a horror movie that tries to be everything for everyone, which means that it shouldn’t work. However, the plot is held together by Burton’s consistent, darkly comedic tone and strong performances from a shockingly good ensemble. Even when the film reaches peak silliness in its action-packed third act, it feels like something that Burton (and movie studios in general) simply do not make anymore.
‘Big Fish’ is Burton’s most sentimental and sweet movie, with all of his typical oddness used to bolster a fairly straightforward tale of a son coming to terms with his father. Some find the film too saccharine and its fantasy sequences too silly, but few of Burton’s films seem to delve as deep into his psyche as this one.
The film is set in two worlds: The real one, where Billy Crudup’s estranged son attempts to connect with his dying dad (played by the great Albert Finney); and flashbacks, where Ewan McGregor plays a young version of Finney as he embarks on a series of impossible, fantastical adventures that are most definitely made up. Those flashbacks are pure Burton, filled to the brim with whimsy and oddball characters, but it’s those modern sequences that give the film its center. This isn’t a movie about a guy going on crazy adventures, this is a movie about a storyteller who can’t help but spin tall tales, embedding the truth into every fiction.
That sounds a lot like Burton himself, who has made a career out of using the fantastic to examine the lonely and the lost and transform them into heroes. ‘Big Fish’ is a staunch and stubborn defense of storytelling, a moving (and weird) defense of fiction and how a little embellishment makes life all the sweeter. If you’re not crying when the ending rolls around, you probably decided to reject the film’s big-hearted, dopey openness. And that’s okay. All the more cathartic tears for us!
‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ is Burton’s first film and what’s most remarkable about it is how different it is from every other movie he would go on to make. Some of the trademarks are there, but you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of someone completely different.
And that’s not a bad thing! While some of Burton’s movies feel like they have his personal thumbprint forced onto them, ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ feels more natural, like Burton let his idiosyncrasies invisibly meld with the material. Everything that would later come to define him as a filmmaker is here, but its unobtrusive, lurking under the surface and serving the screenplay and the characters. In some ways, Burton has never topped this one.
Anyway, the film itself is one of the most lightweight movies Burton ever made, but it’s also effortless, taking a simple story and executing it perfectly. It’s consistently hilarious and surprising, unafraid to try take its tone and its joke in any direction. It’s also the perfect gateway to get the young’uns into Burton’s filmography. Lure them in with Paul Reuben’s energetic lead performance and then traumatize them for life when Large Marge rolls around.
If ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ was Burton finding his voice, ‘Beetlejuice’ is him perfecting it. The film is as funny and madcap as its predecessor, but it’s more assured, telling an actual story in between the jokes.
‘Beetlejuice’ sets the stage for many of the ropes that would later recur throughout Burton’s career. From the heroic outcast played by Winona Ryder to the casual, cartoonish depiction of death and the afterlife, this is Burton making up, on the spot, what a “Tim Burton Movie” would be. For better or for worse, ‘Beetlejuice’ is the template for many of the films he’d go on to make.
And thankfully, it’s kind of of genre-busting masterpiece, a film where horror and comedy and reality and fantasy all manage to somehow co-exist. As the title character, Michael Keaton crafts one of the great movie antagonists of all time, a “bio-exorcist” who assists a recently deceased couple (who are still getting the hang of being ghosts) remove the obnoxious new inhabitants from their home. It’s an ingenious concept that works because of how delicately Burton balances tone. He tempers Keaton’s sheer insanity by letting Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play their roles completely straight, forcing them to act like completely normal people in an outrageous situation (completely normal people are a rarity in later Burton productions). He also withholds Beetlejuice himself, saving him for when he will be the most effective/frightening/hilarious. There’s a whole lot going on this movie, but it’s never busy or chaotic. This movie is a master class in not letting a wild and crazy world overstay its welcome.
‘Edward Scissorhands’ may be the quintessential Tim Burton film. Every lesson he learned from ‘Beetljuice’ is here. The studio-funded gloss of ‘Batman’ is present. The off-kilter world-building that got its start in ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’ is pushed to new heights. And yet this modern fairy tale about an unfinished android’s attempts to fit in with society is a step above all of those because it introduces the final element of what makes Tim Burton Tim Burton: tragedy.
Yeah, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ is surreal and stylized and production designed to the hilt. It’s funny and weird and unafraid of going over-the-top with its nastiness and horror. It has all of those elements we’ve come to expect from a Burton movie (even a weird Johnny Depp lead!), but every single moment of this movie, even when it’s at its most cartoonish, is accompanied by dramatic weight. This is a fantasy where nothing comes easily, a fairy tale where the good guys don’t necessarily win. ‘Edward Scissorhands’ feels like a fable and its complete rejection of a recognizable world only makes it more painful and relatable. We relate to symbols as strongly as we relate to the real world.
‘Ed Wood’ is a remarkable film because it showcases Burton’ strengths and none of his weaknesses. It’s his most “normal” movie, taking place in a world that is recognizably our own, but it contains everything that he has ever been passionate about. It may not be “the ultimate Tim Burton movie,” but it’s certainly the best thing he’s ever put his name on.
A loosely fictionalized look at Edward D. Wood Jr., ‘Ed Wood’ is an affection portrait of a man who would later become infamous as the worst filmmaker of all time. But through Burton’s lens, he’s so much more. He’s a passionate artist, a hard worker, and a man with a genuine vision. He doesn‘t allow his total lack of talent to get in his way. He just wants to make movies and he’ll stop at nothing to tell the stories he wants to tell.
Although Burton obviously had far more success than Wood, it’s easy to see why any filmmaker would find themselves sympathetic and fascinated by him. On top of just being a crazy character (he was a cross-dresser and a decorated World War II veteran and a moviemaker), he represents the core of anyone who lives to create. He’s pure joy and enthusiasm, an optimistic bundle of energy who builds a family out of the freaks he meets on the fringes of Hollywood. This is one of the most compassionate movies ever made about filmmaking and a hilarious, sad look at how film crews straddle the line between traveling circus and extended family. Depp has never been better.
The key to the film is the relationship between Wood and aging horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his performance). Surely Burton saw a little of himself in this element, since he befriended the great Vincent Price in the years before he died, even giving him a role in ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ If this was Burton’s emotional gateway into the story, then the rest of the film flourishes as a result. This sweet, sad, strange, hilarious little movie is one of the best films to come out of ’90s and a reminder that Burton can do so much more when given the proper material.