Tim Burton is a difficulty for me. A bit of a sticking point. The man is a rare unique voice in Hollywood’s studio wilderness; I think anybody that has attended more than a few movies in the last two decades knows who he is, and can call to mind what a hypothetical Tim Burton Movie would look like. To have a style, to almost establish one’s own genre (a la David Lynch) – that’s a rare thing in the era of the summer blockbuster and the workmanlike niche pic (all those endless rows of rom-coms/CGI ghost stories/end-of-year prestige pictures). At the same time, Burton’s style was well-calcified over a decade ago. The man offers little in the way of surprise any more – he just keeps firing bullets shaped like Johnny Depp from a gun painted gothic black. Increasingly few of those shots are anywhere near a bull’s eye.
Here’s how I view Burton’s career so far, from best to worst:
1. Ed Wood (1994). Truly a perfect marriage of director and material. Burton wrung a great deal of humor and pathos out of the subject matter (and what was in actuality a pretty grim life story), and didn’t hesitate to show his affection for Wood and Lugosi. Hell of a movie. One of the few biopics I ever wanted to watch again.
2. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). I think it’s a compliment to say that if you were going to show an alien what a typical Earth movie is like, this is one of the last ones you would pick. The Large Marge scene is the single best thing Burton and Paul Reubens ever did, singly or collectively.
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990). Only three entries in and we’re already getting into problematic movies, which almost sums up Burton for me. “Scissorhands” has so much going for it: iconic work from Danny Elfman and whoever did the costume and set designs; one of the first indications that Johnny Depp was going to be more than a pretty face; Anthony Michael Hall (the dork from “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) all roided up and playing, of all things, a hyper-bad boy; and a last burst of brilliance from Vincent Price. On the other hand, Winona Ryder revealed herself as a dull twit, and Burton has never made a movie with such a ham-fisted message – it’s like “Frankenstein” for everyone who ever imagined the monster was them. I loved this movie when I was 16, which is perfect, because it feels like it was designed to console homely teenagers. Still, there’s much to love.
4. Sweeney Todd (2007). The best latter-day Tim Burton movie by a mile, and another of those perfect matches of material to his directorial voice. As with many of his recent movies its look and style is too predictably “Burton-esque,” with the director never stepping outside his comfort zone to find real inspiration. And yet he doesn’t misstep, sticking to the dark story to the bitter end, and unleashing torrents of blood. It’s not his most inspired work but it’s polished to a fine sheen, and the performances are all excellent.
5. Batman (1989). You can feel this thing aging with each Chris Nolan Batman movie that comes out; “The Dark Knight” in particular did Burton no favors by giving us a Joker that would kill and eat Nicholson’s version just for a laugh. Still, we tend to forget how daring this movie was at the time – how “dark” and “edgy” and all those buzzwords grown-up geeks pin their hopes on. And even though the plot is extremely shaggy, the movie is still very good.
6. Beetle Juice (1988). The most inspired craziness this side of Pee-Wee that Burton ever gave us. It has only a few issues: Ryder’s goth chick is irritating and hard to sympathize with; Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are bland and overwhelmed in the whirling maelstrom of a movie around them; and that moronic ending angers me to this day. When “Beetle Juice” was on HBO every week, I used to turn it off right before that last song could start up. It’s the kind of goof that they are constantly parodying on “The Simpsons”: “We don’t really know how to wrap this thing up, so, uh… how about the characters all start dancing?” Ultimately I feel like “Beetle Juice” is slightly less than the sum of its parts. But when so many of the parts are so awesome (mainly Michael Keaton and those sand worms), you still end up with a very good movie.
7. Batman Returns (1992). Underrated from the day of its release. This really is not a bad movie, it just doesn’t hang together very well.
8. Big Fish (2003). I loved this in the theater – what can I say, the father and son, Cat’s-in-the-cradle crap always gets me. It must be wired into the male genes, along with a love for “The Fox and the Hound.” It’s a good movie, but in hindsight the son is a pretty boring character with too much screen time, and a lot of the whimsy is a bit too cloying.
9. Mars Attacks! (1996). Saw this twice, still don’t know what to make of it. It’s nasty and mean, which I’m in favor of, but it’s hard to remember any of the acting (except, as usual, Nicholson); and borrowing a plot resolution from “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” is almost never a wise idea. If “Beetle Juice” is slightly less than the sum of its parts, this movie feels like about half that amount: lots of stuff is individually memorable and funny, but as a whole the film feels like a shrug, a throw-away.
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). This was exactly what I expected it to be, and not really in a good way.
11. Sleepy Hollow (1999). Some people seem to remember this one fondly, but it’s the movie that forced me to turn in my Burton fan club card. It’s lovely to look at – but in exactly the manner you’d expect, and never more than that. The plot is a complete disaster, throwing away quality source material for some supernatural hoo-ha that insults the viewer’s intelligence by barely trying to make sense. And Johnny Depp just disappears behind heavy costuming and props, giving a very mannered, thoroughly unenjoyable performance.
12. Planet of the Apes (2001). An awful, awful movie. None of the “creative” decisions paid off, and all the acting is poor. This movie single-handedly warned me against making assumptions based on how something looks on paper: “Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes? I love ‘Planet of the Apes,’ and I really like Burton! This CAN’T be bad!” …Oh, how wrong I was. Damn you, Burton, you blew it up!
Jury is still out on:
13. Alice in Wonderland (2010). This could be a pleasant surprise, but as with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (and the debacle of “Sleepy Hollow”) I feel like I can visualize – and fail to enjoy – this entire movie in my head. It would be nice if Burton would collaborate with a writer on an original concept, or do something that didn’t seem so tailor-made to his fond self-regard. And he’s staring to use Depp as a crutch. How about doing a real casting call..?
14. Corpse Bride (2005). Only because I never saw it. Honestly, this made me realize how surprising it is that I’ve seen all of his other movies, and most of those at least twice.
Ineligible for this list:
15. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Apparently Burton wasn’t credited as director on this, just writer and producer. It’s a fine movie, though I think in the stop-motion dark-and-quirky micro-genre, I enjoyed “Coraline” more.
16. Frankenweenie (1984). Not a full-length movie, and I haven’t seen it since my sophomore year of college (many, many moons ago). I remember viewing it with sleep-addled fondness. There was a dog that died and came back to life, wasn’t there..?