With nineteen feature-length films to his directorial name, plus a spate of production credits, and short films, Tim Burton is a giant of cinema, having worked consistently for thirty five years. His films are synonymous with emo types and alternative people everywhere but there’s also surprising variety. So, while his films divide between those who just see the design and nothing else, his work has depth and heart. So, we rank them from the worst to the best.
19. DARK SHADOWS (2012)
Not only boring but unable to decide what it is, Burton’s revamp of the campy old TV series doesn’t work for many reasons, and about eight of them are Johnny Depp’s painfully unfunny turn as a vampire who is awoken in the groove 60s to find his family’s fishing company in dire need of help. The film has fewer jokes than the trailer promises and can’t decide if it’s actually an comedy film or a blood and guts horror. There’s nothing here for anyone, not even Burton fans, though Eva Green is clearly going for broke in spectacular fashion.
18. PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
The debut feature by Burton isn’t nearly as good as people remember. It’s fine, even if the large shadow cast by weirdo Paul Reubens makes his idiotic man child hard to root for. Still, it has all the hallmarks that Burton’s films would come to encapsulate and is interesting to see that his usual stuff – including a hatred of fat people – would continue for years.
17. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
A bad, boring, confused retelling of the Lewis Carroll story. Johnny Depp is an awful Mad Hatter, while the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway are given nothing of any use to do. The voice cast are all fine, particularly Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee, but all in all it builds to an incredibly boring climax, ropey CGI and to put the nail in the coffin it doesn’t even have the traditional Tim Burton long opening credits following something.
16. DUMBO (2019)
Lifeless remake of the Disney classic that manages to make no use of the Batman Returns team-up of Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton. The CGI elephant is cute enough, and the kid performers have an enough heart. But Eva Green and Colin Farrell are bored looking, the film can’t stay focussed and despite removing the racist Crows, there’s little in the way of the magic of the original except the passing reference to Baby of Mine or Pink Elephants.
15. MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
Despite a game cast that includes Glenn Close, Tom Jones, Pierce Brosnan, Natalie Portman, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito and Martin Short, the only person who gets out unscathed is the totally over-the-top Jack Nicholson in a dual role that wakes the weird B-movie out of apathy. It manages to raise a laugh here or there, and is fun in a pulpy way but it can’t really justify its own existence save for the occasional weird moment.
14. PLANET OF THE APES (2001)
Higher than you might expect for this turkey of a remake, yes it’s boring with an uninspired Mark Wahlberg mouth breathing his way through the film, but the film features top actors going for broke in monkey make up by Rick Baker that is as close to realistic as you can get in the creation of human-apes. Tim Roth is particularly good as villainous Thade, but the film’s ending makes no sense and the over reliance on world building instead of a decent narrative damages the hard work of everyone. Plus, there is something incredible wrong about seeing human Marky Mark kissing monkey Helena Bonham Carter.
13. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)
Despite the moving but superfluous subplot about a mean father, Burton’s revamp of the Roald Dahl story is flawed. From the creepy performance of Johnny Depp that feels like a Michael Jackson tribute, the supporting players are all good and clearly believe in Burton’s visions. Really the production design saves the film and the new songs by Danny Elfman, but the end you feel like time with the Gene Wilder one would have been better.
12. FRANKENWEENIE (2012)
A Disney-funded animation based on the short film of the same name from Burton’s pre-feature career. The horror inflected story of bringing your pet back from the dead again feels like a companion piece to the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride but the film doesn’t really stand up after one viewing with children.
11. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)
A sort of superhero movie in the midst of a World War / time travel adventure, this adaptation of the children’s book has an impressive cast (Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Stamp and Rupert Everett) and some moments of genuine intrigue – a Slender Man like monster attacks the house in a gruelling horror sequence, but apart from a fun finale set in Blackpool with some nice Harryhausen-style skeletons, the film is rarely exciting and often a little dull. It’s charming, but not world changing.
10. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
Probably the last genuinely amazing full-Tim Burton film, this adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, is a gothic delight. High on gore as Johnny Depp’s menacing Sweeney and Helena Bonham Carter’s manic Mrs Lovett do wonders with the all singing mania. It gained Depp his third Academy Award nomination, as well as a win for its Art direction, and a nomination for its costume design. The supporting cast includes Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen croon the songs with macabre joy.
9. CORPSE BRIDE (2005)
The first Burton direction animation, this stop-motion musical follows a timid man (voice of Johnny Depp) is soft spoken form as he accidentally proposes to a corpse (Helena Bonham Carter). The songs are all great in that Danny Elfman way, though the stand out is probably Elfman’s own “Remains of the Day”. The joyous Hammer design, along with a thick vein of gallows humour is welcome. Paul Whitehouse, Tracy Ullman, Emily Watson, Richard E. Grant, Jane Horrocks, Albert Finney, Joanna Lumley, Christopher Lee and Michael Gough round off the voice cast that all playfully play up their characters designs, and the film is a visual treat.
8. BATMAN (1989)
Revamping Batman from the campy Adam West days into a cult Gothic icon was no small task and for his third feature it also makes for an impressive visual spectacle. The narrative is a little shoddy, and the action lacking, but the characters from Michael Keaton’s aloof Bruce Wayne and unhinged Batman, to Jack Nicholson’s perverted jolly Joker are ably supported by Burton’s steampunk inspired Gotham. Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough and Jack Palance round off the cast well, and the Prince soundtrack adds to a few fun moments. But really the work that holds up due to the fantastic production design and that awesome Danny Elfman score.
7. BIG EYES (2014)
A little seen Burton flick, this black comedy about the marriage between Margaret and Walter Keane and the art she made is an impressive work. It gained Adams a Golden Globe for her performance, and a nomination for Waltz. The supporting cast are good especially Danny Huston, but the clear influence is the art itself. The use of massive eyes in Keane’s art is clearly something that factors into the work of Burton, his animations famously have huge bug eyes or no eyes, and the film has that streak of praising an artist on the fringes that Burton does better than most.
6. BIG FISH (2003)
Burton’s deeply moving fable of a father and son trying to connect is a brilliantly observed fairytale. Taking as much inspiration from his fascination with Americana as it does Grimm Fairytales, Big Fish features a career best performance by Albert Finney as the old counterpart to Ewan McGregor’s Edward. The story of a son trying to connect with his father before it’s too late seems perfect for Burton which makes it hard to believe that this was originally a Spielberg film with a potential role for Jack Nicholson. With Danny Elfman’s Oscar nominated score and a vast supporting cast (Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume, Marion Cotillard, Missi Pyle, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Deep Roy and Miley Cyrus) this charming tale is sure to inspire many, especially those who have terse relationships with their own father’s. But above all, it’s just a good damn film.
5. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Burton’s blockbusting sequel is a more confident, more weird affair. Set at Christmas, the film pits a more assured Keaton against Michelle Pfeiffer’s sexy Catwoman (as well as offering Bruce Wayne a romance with her alter ego Selina), corporate baddie Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin and his posse of insane clowns. It’s filled with gorgeous visuals, jet black humour, perversion and lines of dialogue that makes absolute no sense (“eat floor, high fibre”). DeVito is the absolute star of the show as the more animal than man Penguin, thrusting and making sexual advances on people, but the film feels much more focussed, much more confident. and remains one of the best on screen batman’s not done by Nolan.
4. SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
Burton’s blood soaked tribute to Hammer Horror takes the short novella by Washington Irving and changes it into a weird supernatural horror movie that follows Johnny Depp’s terrified Ichabod Crane as he tries to uncover the mystery of the headless horseman. Christina Ricci is a little out of her depth in the love interest role but the likes of Michael Gambon, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Griffiths and Alun Armstrong get the measure of the horror style. Miranda Richardson is the real stand out going for broke, and the production design is simply breathtaking evoking olde New England style as well as the sense that it was made back in the 70s.
3. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Burton’s suburban fable is a festive favourite that sees Johnny Depp play the sensitive titular role. While the supporting cast are all good, it’s the final on-screen role of Vincent Price and the haunting score by Elfman that stick with you. It’s pretty much the uber text of what Burton would do with the rest of his career, but the film works because of its non-specific time frame and its fairytale-like telling.
2. BEETLEJUICE (1988)
Burton’s balls-out crazy comedy sees Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis die in an accident and find that Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones and Winona Ryder have moved into their house and are doing garish yuppie things to it with help from Glen Shaddix’s odious Otho. They decide to call on Michael Keaton’s nasty Beetlegeuse to help them, and things get wacky. Burton’s evocation of a garish neon afterlife is perfectly pitched against random stopmotion, crazy costumes, a musical number and of course Elfman on the musical duties. It’s weird, but incredibly good.
1. ED WOOD (1994)
Easily the best film Burton ever made his loving biopic about shlock meistro Ed Wood, the worst director in the world who made Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space features one of the best Depp performances in a Burton film, as well as an oscar winning turn from Martin Landau as horror icon and Wood’s muse Bela Lugosi. A decent supporting cast pales when it’s just Depp and Landau, and you can see the love Burton has for Wood’s insane films. It remains the best of his career.