Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to Best

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 AdventureBeetlejuice, 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.

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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.

It’s showtime.

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Film Editor

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19. Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows (Warner Bros.)

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.

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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18. Planet of the Apes (2001)

planet of the apes Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 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.

Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes

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.

Mark Wahlberg in Planet of the Apes

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.

–Blake Goble

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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.

Alice in Wonderland (Disney)

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.

–Matt Melis

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16. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros.)

Oompa-Loompa Doopity What?: Very little criticism of Danny Elfman will find its way into this Dissected, but it’s still hard to understand a damn word of any of these Oompa-Loompa songs more than a decade later. Kudos for adapting Dahl’s original lyrics, but these songs can’t hold a whangdoodle to the beloved numbers in Mel Stuart’s classic musical.

Steady Freddie: While Burton had worked with teens before, and even a man-child in a gray suit and red bowtie, Freddie Highmore’s performance as Charlie proved the director could get a crackerjack performance out of a true youngster. Dahl’s tale is ultimately about a poor boy who never wavers in trying to do the right thing, even as the spoiled brats of the world seem to always get their way. Sweet, thoughtful, and, yes, woefully malnourished-looking, Highmore’s Charlie couldn’t be more different from the grotesque Golden Ticket holders he meets at the factory, which makes him an easy hero for which to cheer.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros.)

The Verdict: Adapting a children’s novel that’s already been made into a beloved film paints a bull’s-eye squarely on the filmmaker. No doubt Burton understood this when he opted to bring his singular cinematic style to Dahl’s tale of a poor boy, an eccentric confectioner, and his fantastical chocolate factory. At the very least, Burton’s version remedies some of the concerns of Stuart’s classic version: Charlie once more becomes the titular character, Slugworth’s mission is thwarted, and the fizzy lifting heist, which partly decarbonates Charlie’s bubbling integrity, gets poured down the drain. Unfortunately, the film’s good intentions are quickly overshadowed by an incredibly creepy portrayal of Willy Wonka, tangents (like the chocolatier’s backstory) that steal from the story at hand, and, yes, a chocolate room that looks more nauseating than edible.

–Matt Melis

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15. Frankenweenie (2012)

frankenweenie Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 27 min.

Cast: Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine ‘Hara, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder

The Pitch: Sparky’s back, deader and better. Burton adapts and enlarges his 1984 Disney short about a resurrected Bull Terrier into a black-and-white stop-motion feature. What starts as a suburban parody of Frankenstein transforms into an all-out monster mash with vampire cats, Godzilla-sized turtles, and about a hundred other B-movie allusions reminding you just what Burton digs about film.

This is Halloween: It’s practically ripped from the margins of a daydreaming student’s notepad, that student being Tim Burton – the concept of Sparky, and the sketches for him, date all the way back to 1982. The stark, jagged, swirling lines. The rail-thin characters and scribbled textures. The Bauhaus and German expressionistic roots. A lot of references get thrown around to Burton’s love of exaggerated aesthetics, but if ever there was an heir to Edward Gorey, you’re looking at him.

MBC: Burton adored Vincent Price. The dulcet horror-meister inspired Burton’s first animated short, Vincent, a fetishistic dream about a young man who wants to be, yes, Vincent Price. Burton then lucked out and got Price not too long before the actor’s passing for Edward Scissorhands. With Frankenweenie, Burton offers perhaps his most excessive homage to Price yet with Mr. Rzykruski (Maritn Landau), a grade-school science teacher that looks like a Vincent Price nightmare, complete with the widow’s peak, long face, and tight mustache.

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie

Burton Resuscitated: When Frankenweenie was announced by Disney, it came with a hilarious irony: the original short that Burton made for the studio, 28 years prior, had gotten him canned. Burton, who started in animation and drawing, was let go after the short (featuring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Burton) was viewed as a waste of resources by the Mouse House. Burton circa 2012, hot off a huge hit for Disney with Alice in Wonderland, was now deemed appropriately profitable. One hope this felt like a last laugh for him.

Dark Money: While Frankenweenie made its money back, at least globally, it got beat by both Burton’s Dark Shadows (released earlier in the year) and Laika’s similarly kid-spooky ParaNorman.

Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie Sketches

The Verdict: Frankenweenie wanders, wastes a fair amount of time before picking up, and feels like the definition of a director’s late-career feature. We get it. You probably painted your bedroom black, Mr. Burton. Your look is yours and yours alone. Only Wes Anderson garners more light mockery for being overbearingly obvious in both look and rigeur.

Yet Frankenweenie does eventually come alive, and evolves into a slap-happy sandbox for Burton to show off some of his old favorites. Throw in the crisp animation, some funny sight gags (a turtle growing to epic size because of a Miracle Gro accident is pretty great), and you’ve got something. It’s a Tim Burton love letter to Tim Burton’s loves.

–Blake Goble

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14. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

peregrine Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 7 mins.

Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson

The Pitch: Based on the 2011 young adult novel by Ransom Riggs, the story follows a young Florida stock boy (Butterfield) whose grandfather’s (Stamp) last words prompt him to follow the breadcrumbs of a supernatural mystery. Parsing out the clues left behind through his grandpa’s photographs and stories, he’s led to an abandoned orphanage on a fictional Welsh island, one filled with a host of children you might call, well, peculiar.

This is Halloween: Part of the problem with any post-2005 Burton production is that the filmmaker stopped chasing the “weird”, and the “weird” was instead now brought to him on a silver platter. Point to any of his later productions, save for maybe an outlier like 2014’s Big Eyes, and they’re all working from source material that he more or less stamped his name on with dollops of CGI.

Peregrine’s is a minor exception in that it feels as if Burton actually tried to offer his own expansions on Riggs’ prose. For one, the CGI is more refined, perhaps due to the advancement of the technology, but it’s also utilized in a way that feels more organic than in years past. The settings are bizarre yet palpable, and the creature designs are in tandem with his past horrors.

The entire “cold open” in Florida feels like a peace offering of sorts from Burton, as he dials back to the same claustrophobic fears of surburbia he realized to perfection in Edward Scissorhands. And that’s key when the film’s dull reality, much like the autumnal real-world settings of Big Fish, offers an essential contrast to the deep wonders ahead. That dichotomy alone had been missing for around a decade.

samuel l jackson Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to Best

MBC: While Green’s titular Ymbryne headmistress clearly captures the post-2005 archetype for Burton, she’s actually kind of dull as a figurehead, dissolving in and out of scenes with the same kind of chilled stoicism that turned Helena Bonham Carter’s work with him into a punchline. However, Jackson’s villainous Mr. Barron delights as the shape-shifting leader of the Wights and Hollows.

He’s doing his own thing, but his wicked transformations and aggressive demeanor suggest he’s also thumbing through the Book of Keaton. He’s Beetlejuice, but if Beetlejuice wanted to eat Lydia Deetz’s eyeballs, and there’s a whiplash energy to the way he tumbles in and out of this story that feels more old-school Burton than his more recent antagonists.

Screen Shot 2019 03 26 at 5.30.41 PM Ranking: Every Tim Burton Movie from Worst to Best

The Deathly Hollows: And how! Look, it’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking it’s a knockoff of Harry Potter — toss in a little X-Men and the aforementioned Big Fish and voila — but these otherworldly creatures are legitimately terrifying. No shade to J.K. Rowling, but these Hollows actually have a bite — literally. Watching them crawl out of nothing is chilling, to say the least.

Granted, their faceless terror sparks immediate comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and even John Irvin’s Ghost Story, but they insist upon a delectable kind of gothic horror that Burton seemed to have locked up in the attic. Even in broad daylight, such as when Peregrine takes down a stalking Hollow outside the house with a crossbow, they’re beyond unnerving.

Miss Peregrine’s Rave for Peculiar Children: Also unnerving is when Elfman sub-ins Mike Higham and Matthew Margeson pivot from the traditional orchestral fare to something you’d hear at, say, Ultra Music Festival for the carnival finale. It’s admittedly a pointed attempt to show they’ve been ushered from the ’40s into the mid-aughts, but still. Bad idea jeans.

The Verdict: What ultimately hurts Peregrine’s is the story itself. Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman take far too long to actually get to the conflict, spending a good hour building a world that doesn’t seem to require that much time. And yet, even after spending over a half of the film’s runtime with its ensemble of peculiar children, they still feel more peculiar than familiar.

But thematically, this one is actually quite affecting. Burton’s contending with some feelings of his own, and you can sense it in the film’s relationship to the real world at hand. We’re a society that’s moved on from the imaginative, mostly by way of society’s own dull distractions, and the way we find that spark of creativity through a lesson in grief is where Burton comes out on top.

–Michael Roffman

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13. Dumbo (2019)

Dumbo (Disney)

All the Right Winks: With so little plot from which to draw in the original 1941 Dumbo, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger don’t spend much time nodding to the animated classic. (Blink and you’ll miss Timothy Q. Mouse altogether.) But when they do decide to reference the original, it’s done in loving and charming fashion: Mrs. Jumbo’s trunk cradling Dumbo through the bars of her captivity, Casey Jr. being called upon to haul the Medici Bros. Circus from town to town, and even a pink elephants-on-parade homage that won’t lead to nightmares. And, as you might have guessed, Jim Crow has been officially retired.

Did Disneyland Just Get Torched?: From its many fantastical worlds to its unmistakable allusion to Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress attraction, big dreamer and bigger jerk V.A. Vandevere’s Dreamland amusement park can’t be seen as anything but an even flashier and shinier Disneyland. So, that raises the question: Did Disney just pay Tim Burton a shitload of green to turn the happiest place on Earth into a symbol of empty, manipulative corruption?

Dumbo (Disney)

The Verdict: Nobody will mistake Dumbo for Burton’s more inspired fairy tales. Rest easy, Eds Bloom, Wood, and Scissorhands. Disney hired Burton to breathe life and some of his trademark quirk into one of their classic properties, and the results should be enough to please general audiences and the director’s fans alike, even if the movie can be painfully predictable and has all the subtlety of Dumbo’s ears. Here, Burton creates a sad, beautiful, and believable world and leaves enough heart on the screen for smiles, tears, and tenderness. And that’s nearly every bit as good as seeing an elephant fly.

–Matt Melis

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12. Big Eyes (2014)

Big Eyes (The Weinstein Company)