Perhaps the most idiosyncratic filmmaker to ever become a household name, Tim Burton is a prolific filmmaker whose films are characterized by their gothic style, quirky humor and oddball characters. That he was able to utilize this eccentric nature into a lucrative career alongside frequent collaborator and friend Johnny Depp is in by itself a miracle. With Dark Shadows, his latest feature, in cinemas, I figured this to be the best time to debut The Film Dossier by looking back at the iconic filmmaker’s eccentric career – his highs, his lows, and everything in between.
The Filmmaker: Tim Burton
Oscar Nods: 1 (Best Animated Feature – Corpse Bride (2005))
Highest Grossing Film: Alice in Wonderland (2009)
Debut Feature: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Latest Feature: Dark Shadows (2012)
[BREAKTHROUGH FILM] Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice wasn’t Burton’s first feature-length film (that would be the Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) but it was the first to showcase the filmmaker’s trademark pseudo-gothic style which incorporates expressionistic-esque visuals, impressively striking art direction and his penchant for bizarre characters. Mostly remembered for that hilarious dinner table scene and Michael Keaton’s tour-de-force, career-topping performance as the title character, it was the strength and success of Beetlejuice that gave Warner Brothers the confidence to greenlight the filmmaker’s vision of a dark and atmospheric Batman (1989).
[QUINTESSENTIAL FILM] Edward Scissorhands (1990)
While many would argue for Batman as Burton’s most iconic film, to me, no Burton film better represents the filmmaker’s aesthetic better than this moving gothic fable about a loner with scissors for hands, who is lovingly adopted by suburban family. Arguably the most personal of Burton’s works, this artful fantasy marked the first time the filmmaker had complete control over a feature – he also wrote and produced the film – and showcased his acute ability to marry themes of isolation, misunderstanding and lost innocence with fantasy and horror. Combined with Danny Elfman’s remarkable score and Johnny Depp’s near silent performance, the film is richly deserving of its status as a modern classic.
[BEST FILM] Ed Wood (1994)
A lot of the time, a filmmaker’s quintessential film may also double as their best work but not in Burton’s case. Though one can make a strong point in favor of his terrific adaptation of Sweeney Todd (2007) and the aforementioned Edward Scissorhands, it’s his other “Ed” film released a few years later, that remains his masterpiece. Shot in stark black & white, and once again starring Depp – in one of his best performances – this zany comedy celebrating the life and eccentricities of Ed Wood, renowned as the worst filmmaker in history, remains unrivaled in Burton’s canon for its host of eccentric characters, intentional campiness, terrific performances, and heart – the latter courtesy of the great Martin Landau who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his heartbreaking turn as aging Dracula star Bela Lugosi.
[WORST FILM] Alice in Wonderland (2009)
This was a tough one. Though initially inclined to go with Burton’s worthless remake Planet of the Apes (2001) which features one of the dumbest endings in recent movie history, a fleeting discussion with a colleague tipped the scale in favor of this garish, over-produced and blatant cash-grab that brought all the worst qualities of the filmmaker to focus. Everything about this putrid hit from the over-the-top production design to the quirky characters that were quirky for the sake of being quirky was off. Add in the most irritating character of Johnny Depp’s career, horrid 3D, and a plot that made no sense whatsoever and voila – Burton’s worst film. That it made over a billion dollars worldwide still flabbergasts me.
[MOST UNDERRATED FILM] Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Sleepy Hollow isn’t Tim Burton’s best work but it’s a film embedded in my mind to the extent where if I were asked to pick one Burton movie to watch at any given moment, it’d be this loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic story. Why… because other than being an eerie and unabashedly entertaining mystery horror movie, it’s one of the most visually dazzling horror films ever produced. Every shot of this exquisitely-designed film could be framed in a horror museum. With Burton’s gothic vision set to 11, courtesy of the Oscar-winning art direction, Emmanuel Lubezki’s atmospheric cinematography and Danny Elfman’s terrific score providing the mood, and Johnny Depp’s lively performance inducing the laughs in between the thrills, this is easily the film in Burton’s oeuvre that demands more respect than it gets.
[MOST OVERRATED FILM] Batman (1989)
What? Blasphemy you say? Yea, whatever man. Okay, so Batman is a good movie. I’d even be tempted to dub it a very good one but it’s hilariously outdated and doesn’t warrant the praise and respect it gets in many circles. Yes, it’s better than the three films that followed it but considering two of them were Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, that’s no hard task. Take out the jaw-dropping art direction and Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance, and what you’re left with is a soulless film with a boring lead character (despite Michael Keaton’s best efforts), a hopeless performance from Kim Bassinger whose entire role entails screaming a head off, and a grossly outdated Prince soundtrack – which wasn’t even good back in 1989. I will however, give it props for boasting a fantastic score from Danny Elfman, and that wonderful Batmobile.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Ed Wood (1994)
Big Fish (2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
[Trademarks] As previously stated, Burton’s films are characterized by their gothic style and quirky humor. Almost all his lead characters can be classified as loners (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish, Corpse Bride), oddballs (Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) or all-out psychopaths (Sweeney Todd, Beetlejuice) – which given Burton’s style, makes sense. He also tends to blend childhood themes seamlessly with dark fantastical elements as evidenced in Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, and his big-budget remakes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
[Common Themes] Alienation, loneliness, outcasts, death, absent father figures
[Criticisms] Burton’s critics grate him for his over-indulgence in style over substance, poorly developed characters, his tendency of working with the same crew of actors over and over again (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter), and not moving out of his comfort zone of oddballs and eccentrics. Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes and Dark Shadows are prime examples.
[Chief Collaborators] Burton has collaborated with star Johnny Depp on eight films and with domestic partner Helena Bonham Carter on seven films. Other frequent collaborators include composer Danny Elfman, screenwriter John August, and costume designer extraordinaire Colleen Atwood who has designed eight of Burton’s last nine films – three of which that have netted her Oscar nods.
[WHAT’S NEXT] This fall’s Frankenweenie, a feature-length adaptation of Burton’s own short film from the early 80s.