In 1986, after years of work in animation, various other below-the-line contributions, and a pair of short films by his own hand, Tim Burton stormed onto the international filmmaking stage with his ’80s feature run of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman.
In just a few years, Burton made himself a household name, and one of the most unique and sought-after directorial voices in a Hollywood beginning to find itself overwhelmed by waves of homogenous, branded movies.
That’s not to pretend that Burton exists outside of the mainstream; nearly every movie in his first decade of feature-length work was released by Warner Bros., and he’s spent his decades as a notable industry presence working mostly within the studio system.
But thinking of Burton invokes images of the left-of-center, the unexpected, the strange and occult and ooky and delightful. Within that same studio system, one which has embraced franchise potential more with every passing year, Burton has made a career out of movies for the weird kids, the imaginative and idiosyncratic ones, of every age.
As Burton’s latest update of an animated classic flaps into theaters with Dumbo, we’ve taken a look at all 19 of the director’s feature-length films to date (most recent included), and from our favorites to those less so, the many ways in which Burton has come to define a particular kind of cinematic magic.
19. Dark Shadows (2012)
A Quick Word on Barnabas: Dark Shadows is a mess for several different reasons, but a sizable chunk of the blame ultimately lies with the leading turn around which its many eccentric vignettes are anchored. This is a Johnny Depp living in a post-Wonderland world, where the quirks and tics that earned him an Oscar nomination for Captain Jack Sparrow the first time around had already begun to curdle. After being encouraged with audience millions to dial them to 11 as the Mad Hatter, Dark Shadows sees that cloying, bumbling version of Depp inserted into a Tim Burton world, and he’s never looked less at home in one of the director’s movies.
Dropping the Hammer: One clear stylistic influence, on Burton’s body of work at large and here in particular, is the Hammer horror aesthetic. The mid-century British production company’s shadow of influence over latter-day horror filmmakers is long, and Burton in particular has invoked the looks of the company’s lustrously staged productions throughout his career. (This is his fifth film in which Hammer’s legendary Dracula, the late Christopher Lee, appears as well.) There are occasional flashes of that look throughout Dark Shadows, but Hammer made horror movies that played every emotion to the back of the house, whether fear or lust or repulsion, however much of a wink they included in their delivery. This is no Hammer movie.
The Verdict: Dark Shadows makes for rough sailing before long at all, which is unusual at a glance when you stop to consider the many ways in which it’s of a thematic piece with some of his best movies, some of the ones at the very end of this feature. But it’s a vision of filmmaker and star alike working on autopilot, the former leaning on familiarity and years of goodwill as the latter traded on his slurred charm to increasingly diminished returns. For a movie based on a camp classic, Shadows seems to fundamentally mistake its thudding comedy for camp at almost every turn.(It’s also aggressively un-fun at nearly every point for a movie so transparently chasing after camp appeal.) It’s the first time, and probably the only time, in Burton’s career that one of his movies feels totally empty beneath the decor.
18. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Runtime: 2 hr.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan, Estella Warren, Kris Kristofferson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Paul Giamatti
The Pitch: Wahlberg goes bananas, as audiences went apeshit trying to make sense of this brooding take on Pierre Boulle’s sci-fi classic of chim-pandemonium. They’re damned. They’re dirty. They’re apes, and it’s their planet. And old Captain Leo Davidson (Wahlberg) is stuck trying to find a way out.
This is Halloween: Erm, it’s dark? It’s, like, moody. Wait, that’s not visual. Hm. Yeah, Rick Baker’s make-up is excellent? It’s still too anatomically accurate to be an imaginative Burton thing. We’ve got nothing. This is well-budgeted “meh” in terms of the look, and Burton seems buried beneath the requirements of summer tentpole accoutrement.
MBC: Helena Bonham Carter’s Ari, a female chimp that defects from apes to help Captain Davidson – perhaps because she finds flinging with Marky Mark too hard to pass up – feels like a Burton variation. She’s emotional, intellectual, and a bit of an outsider. In a movie filled with costumes, make-up, and other bluster, Carter stands aside it all as an extremely amiable misfit.
New Direction After Direction: Ever wonder why this film felt so distinctly unlike Burton? Like a movie with a release date and gun-metal blue posters, devoid of stronger storytelling and bolder visuals? Gather around, children and trivia dweebs. Here’s a brief timeline of what transpired at Fox, Columbia, and possibly elsewhere:
— Adam Rifkin, of The Chase and Detroit Rock City, pitches an alternate sequel to the original 1968 film. It’s fast-tracked. Makeup guru Rick Baker is on board, Danny Elfman will compose. Tom Cruise might even star. Management changes. Fox passes.
— Peter Jackson pitches. Nothing.
— 1993. The property’s still at Fox. Oliver Stone and Sam Raimi are pursued to direct. Stone becomes an executive producer for a guaranteed $1 million. Arnold Schwarzenegger is signed to be Will Robinson. Seriously. Chuck Russell of The Mask almost lands the directing job. Philip Noyce of Patriot Games is eventually hired. Then he walks over, you guessed it, “creative differences.”
— Chris Columbus comes on, and then leaves.
— In 1996, Roland Emmerich is offered the chance to direct. Nope.
— James Cameron was courted during Titanic’s lengthy shoot. Titanic is then such a hit that he can walk away from directing a Planet of the Apes.
— Arnold leaves. Becomes the Eraser.
— Michael Bay turns the remake project down. Ouch.
— Peter Jackson turns the remake down.
— The Hughes brothers turn the remake down.
— February 2000. Burton’s hired. The movie shoots in October, and is released by July 2001.
In conclusion: art. And the director shuffle is still less difficult to follow than the actual film.
A Bad Bet: Wahlberg dropped out of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake for this shit. (Matt Damon swooped in, FYI.) And look, $3 million less at the North American box office for this over that. We should all be so lucky. But which movie’s now a cable mainstay, and which franchise was immediately re-booted again by the studio? Anyway, Wahlberg rebounded with Rock Star. :checks notes: Sorry, he did not.
The Verdict: It sucks. Want more? It’s gutless, soulless, convoluted, and puts Burton on an intensely short leash. There’s a lesson here in tracking your favorite directors, especially when they look like they’re in it for the money. These property-based gigs become burdens, and Burton himself doesn’t look back all too fondly on this project. And in the wake of Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves’ far more personal and assured visions, this take is just monkey business.
17. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland (Disney)
Page to Screen: Carroll’s novels are more or less a series of unrelated, nonsensical (and often dark) vignettes full of puns, poems, and linguistic chaos. For modern audiences who are used to and demand escalating, twisting narratives with exhilarating finishes, Alice offers today’s screenwriter virtually nothing to work with – something that becomes painfully apparent when watching Burton’s take on the classic. Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton pull characters and bits from both plot-thin Carroll novels before arriving at a Chronicles of Narnia remake, complete with prophecies, Depp’s Hatter as Mr. Tumnus, and a vorpal sword-wielding final battle against an evil queen, her Jabberwocky, and a deck of playing cards. It’s a narrative so slight that it threatens to float away even more so than Anne Hathaway’s Glinda-esque White Queen.
Soul for Hire: It’s not as though other directors haven’t cashed in on the opportunity to helm a major property or big studio tentpole, but it’s hard not to miss the Burton who brought his own worlds to life, and was able to infuse even A-list franchises with some of his own energy. There’s just so very little heart or personality here.
The Verdict: Red flags should have been raised when Burton’s film began on a foggy London night, rather than a golden afternoon. At one point, Burton may have been the director or producer to bring the wonder of Wonderland to theaters. At this point in his career, however, a Tim Burton film can feel more like a film presented in the style of Tim Burton than one in which he bring his own worlds to life. When Carroll’s Hatter tells Alice that he doesn’t know the answer to his own riddle, she sighs: “I think you might do something better with the time than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” The same might be said about Burton taking on Alice.
16. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros.)