Tim Burton is one of the most iconic and prolific directors in Hollywood. His 18th film Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children opens this weekend.
In his review of Miss Peregrine's, Variety's chief film critic Peter Debruge says the film – based Ransom Riggs' novel about a group of special children with extraordinary powers – may as well have been written for Tim Burton to direct.
Debruge notes Burton successfully revisits and expand motifs and themes from his earlier work, including Big Fish, Frankenweenie, and perhaps his best known work, Edward Scissorhands. It not unexpected for a director as prolific as Burton – who's been making films for three decades – to draw upon the past.
But not all of his past movies are winners, and box office success doesn't always equate to critical success. "Alice in Wonderland" pulled in $1 billion worldwide, but ranks among Burton's worst, according to Variety's other chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman.
Where do the likes of Batman, Sweeney Todd, and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride rank? (The Nightmare Before Christmas isn't on Gleiberman's list because Burton served as producer on the film, not director.) Miss Peregrine's is also too new to add.
See below Tim Burton's films ranked, from worst to best. And then tell us in the comments whether Gleiberman got them right or not.
17. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)
A Technicolor yawn. It’s a glittering pile of candy-colored FX detritus that, if you squint hard enough through your 3D glasses, you can pretend exploded out of Burton’s imagination. Really, though, the images are cluttered and diffuse, and Burton never begins to deal with the issue of how to adapt an “innocent” children’s novel that, deep down, is really a snarky satire of crackpot adult narcissism. The movie is a spun-sugar pile of fake innocence, populated by a collection of twee characters who seem to be nattering at themselves. The worst offender is Johnny Depp’s hyperactive, Bozo-topped, pinwheel-eyed Mad Hatter, a cuckoo annoyance whose monotonous Scottish brogue turns him into the first Burton – and Depp – character who’s all manic energy and no joy.
16. “Planet of the Apes” (2001)
You want even a bad Tim Burton movie to trip itself up in gaudy spectacular ways. But the surprise, and disappointment, of his reboot of the 1968 humans-in-ape-world classic is that it’s so shorn of personality. Instead of taking the concept and going wild with it (goth apes! Who just want to have fun!), Burton plays it flat and straight: The actors under the simian makeup barely come through, Mark Wahlberg plays the hero like just another Wahlberg action stud, and the twist ending is a brain-bender in all the wrong ways – you keep trying to wrap your head around it, and you can’t.
15. “Frankenweenie” (2012)
Burton expands his 1984 short into a stop-motion feature, and the result is a textbook case of more being less. The original, along with Vincent (1982), was the prankish hipster horror comedy that started it all, and part of the joke was the way it compressed the entire plot of Frankenstein – with an electrically revived canine in place of the monster – into a delirious 30 minutes. Burton pads it out with deluxe visual flourishes, but in this case they just end up making you miss the hand-made, literally stitched-to-life quality of the original.
14. “Batman Returns” (1991)
Burton’s first didactic freak show. In addition to Batman (Michael Keaton, still looking like a bystander in his own superhero movie), we have the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a hook-nosed runt who’s like a mouldy Victorian ghoul, and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who with her cackling psychotic gleam is like the the original version of Harley Quinn. Pfeiffer acts up a snarling storm, but the movie is a mess – slipshod and aimless, and Burton’s heavy-handed identification with each and every one of his characters robs it of a center of gravity.
13. “Big Fish” (2003)
A rare entry by Burton into the arena of teary year-end awards bait, and (no surprise) he’s only so-so at it. Ewan McGregor stars as a bourgeois lost soul who returns to the Alabama home of his ailing father (Albert Finney), who tells the story of his life through tall-tale flashbacks, which involve everything from his joining the circus to his fighting in the Korean War. He’s a spiky Dickensian Forrest Gump, but despite moments of enchantment the anecdotes grow leaden, bogged down by the film’s rotely mechanised daddy issues.
12. “Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
On paper, it has everything you could want in a Burton fantasia: elegant gloom and doom, a new twist on an old legend, and Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, a New York City constable on the trail of the Headless Horseman – a mystical homicidal spectre whose ritualistic night decapitations make him a Freudian image of vengeance and castration at the same time. The movie was greeted as vintage Burton, but it actually marked the first time that he reduced his signature motifs to a brand. It’s like TV-dinner Burton: tasty if you don’t look too close, but finally a simulation of the real thing. Burton lays on the ground fog as if trying to outdo the Hammer horror films of the ’60s, but half-jokey high-camp fog is still… fog.
11. “Corpse Bride” (2005)
In 1993, Burton created an offbeat Yuletide perennial when he produced (but didn’t direct) The Nightmare Before Christmas, featuring a hero who looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy after a motorcycle accident. It was novel at the time, but actually a rather lugubrious kiddie musical, and this stop-motion curio is, if anything, a more ghoulishly witty crackpot puppet show. The title character, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter, is a walking-dead femme fatale so decayed that you can glimpse her molars through her cheek. It’s never entirely clear why Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), a winsome chap with Jimmy Stewart’s hair, ends up marrying her, since the story is just a thin excuse for a parade of junior-gothic macabre Burton japes. But some of them – e.g., the team of daddy longlegs that sew Victor a suit – are pretty sweet.
10. “Big Eyes” (2014)
The ironic biopic – the tale of a famous person who’s as much a loser as he is a winner – was a whole new stroke of artistic brilliance that rarely panned out commercially. But Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters who invented it with Ed Wood (see below), concocted a lovely, minor scherzo version of it in telling the true story of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the San Francisco artist who became famous for his paintings of big-eyed children in the ’50s and ’60s, and his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams), the person the movie is really about – because, as it turned out, she was the actually the artist who painted all those paintings. Burton’s direction has a wide-awake straightforwardness that makes you wish he’d do this kind of thing more often. He turns the story into a cockeyed feminist fairy tale, all powered by the filmmaker’s rich appreciation for Margaret Keane’s sentimental but spooky art.
9. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
It would be hard to think of a director more perfectly suited to adapting Stephen Sondheim’s exuberantly nasty slasher musical (meat pies! throat slittings!) than Burton. Grooving on the grotty industrial 1840s London setting, he does an exemplary job of turning Sondheim’s Grand Guignol tale into a flowing operatic spectacle. The blood gushes, and so do Sondheim’s morosely macabre pop arias, as Sweeney (Johnny Depp), thwarted in love and wrongly imprisoned, turns into a razor-wielding serial killer seeking vengeance on the world. It’s all wonderfully done, but nearly 30 years after it was first mounted on stage (with what was, at the time, the most spectacular set in Broadway history), there’s a slightly precious gore-under-glass quality to Sweeney Todd that makes the movie good but not great.
8. “Dark Shadows” (2012)
Burton’s most underappreciated minor gem of recent years. At times, it feels like a riff on things he’s done before, but there’s also a whimsical idiosyncrasy to the tale of Barnabas Collins, an 18th-century vampire who wakes up in the fishing village of Collinsport, Maine, in the middle of the stoned early ’70s. Is Barnabas the biggest freak around? Yes, but not in the way you expect: He’s a demon who will tear your larynx out, but next to the glam hippies around him, he’s a painfully courtly romantic gentleman out of Jane Austen – a figure of extraordinary un-coolness. Which, of course, makes him cooler than anyone. Depp, looking like he just came from Vidal Sassoon of Transylvania, clowns around infectiously, and the rest of the Collins household suggests the Addams Family on Windex fumes. As for Eva Green, who plays Barnabas’ resentful former lover, she used this movie to relaunch herself as a high priestess of kitsch.
7. “Mars Attacks!” (1996)
The last inspired prank-show comedy of Burton’s classic early period. A gleaming flying saucer, like the ones that menaced moviegoers in the 1950s, touches down in the Nevada desert, and out steps a crew of Martian soldiers with grinning skull-faces, giant exposed brain lobes, and dancing eyeballs. The eternal alien-invader question – why have they come? – gets answered quite quickly: They have come to gleefully irradiate everyone in sight! The movie is based on a series of Topps bubble-gum cards from the 1960s, and it’s not much more than a series of malicious jokes (the Martians use the Easter Island statues as bowling pins), yet it blithely sends up the paranoid pop culture of two eras: the solemn anxiety of the ’50s and the rah-rah jingoism of “Independence Day.” It’s a happily daft lark.
6. “Batman” (1989)
As the first comic-book superhero movie to seriously flirt with the dark side (two decades before The Dark Knight, it drew wedges of inspiration from that dystopian graphic novel), Burton’s Wagnerian pop opera has passages of hypnotic grandeur, as the camera follows Batman on his thrilling swoop dives through the night canyons of Gotham City. At the time, this all seemed very Burtonian, yet there’s a reason that Batman is remembered just as much for taking the notion of the Hollywood marketing juggernaut to new levels: In form and spirit (and cheeseball lighting), it’s the prototype of a franchise blockbuster, and maybe that’s one reason why Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, after a few good scenes, seems to vanish into the margins. He’s an oxymoron – a lightweight brooding antihero. Of course, the other thing that happens is that someone else steps into the moonlit spotlight: Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a feral palm-buzzer psychotic who takes over the movie, delivering antic meta-sarcasms as his eyebrows twitch with glee. He’s mesmerising, but you wish it had been a fair fight.
5. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985)
Before there was a Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Pee-wee Herman was just a rouged and leering baby-talk novelty act on late-night talk shows who needed a place to call home – and Burton, in his delectable gonzo-lite first feature, built him one. It may be the coolest big-studio debut ever: a movie that showcases Paul Reubens’ giggly and “adorable” crew-cut man-boy by creating a homegrown surrealist landscape where he can be at outsider who somehow fits right in. The film’s iconic scene is, of course, Pee-wee’s madly overdeliberate arm-waggling bar dance to the Champs’ 1958 "Tequila", and the perfection of the scene is that it’s completely and utterly inexplicable even for Pee-wee. This was the sure sign that we were witnessing a whole new thingy: the high-camp high jinks of Pee-wee Herman, as well as a director audacious enough to bottle them.
4. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005)
If you haven’t already done so, you can now start writing your juicy hate comments: How could I possibly choose this smirky travesty of a Roald Dahl fairy tale, with its fey and flippant performance by Johnny Depp as the beloved Willy Wonka, as Burton’s fourth best movie? Here’s how. The movie is a very different box of chocolates from the 1971 version – not that that should stand in the way of one’s appreciation for the late Gene Wilder’s creepy cuddliness as Willy Wonka. Yet the movie that surrounded Wilder was (let’s be honest) a rather chintzy piece of musical Tinker-Toy. Burton, in his far more authentic adaptation, cuts to the story-book soul of Dahl’s 1964 novel. He envisions the chocolate factory as a confectionary dream zone, ruled by disarmingly funny figments of dementia like the all-singing, all-melting puppets that herald the candymaker’s arrival. The children – updated versions of Veruca Salt, Augustus Gloop, etc. – seem even more timely in an age when it’s become politically correct to spoil kids rotten. So it makes perfect sense that Wonka, played by Johnny Depp as a milky-skinned misanthropic dandy who looks and acts like a vampire who’s halfway through transitioning, despises both the children and their parents (except, of course, for Charlie, the one kid on screen who hasn’t fallen from grace). Willy is a sourball, and a hilarious one, yet the mystery of Wonka is that he crafts the most succulent candies for the people he hates. Burton’s film is a bittersweet homage to our whole relationship to candy and pleasure: Why it’s important to love it, and just as important not to love it too much.
3. “Beetlejuice” (1988)
It was only the second feature Burton directed – after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which (as wonderful as it is) was still a filmmaker-for-hire gig. This was the one in which Burton, for the first time, was able to let his inner fantasist erupt on screen, and what we saw was something riotously funny and, at the same time, wildly, cacklingly demonic. It’s basically the most hellzapoppin’ ghost story ever told, with Alec Baldwin (so young he looks downright ingenuous) and Geena Davis as a recently deceased couple who are gently haunting the family that has moved into their former home, until a peskier spectre arrives: a showman-ogre named Betelgeuse (nickname: Beetlejuice), played by Michael Keaton as a grimy satanic Jack-in-the-box who’s been let out of his box. For Burton, the spirit world is a funhouse – Halloween on acid – but it’s also a very real place. And while this antic special-effects comedy is far from his deepest work, it has a loopy Rube Goldberg anarchic bravado that the director has never matched. Even the slightly dated analog effects now play as testaments to the trip-wire insanity of his imagination.
2. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship – between Burton and Johnny Depp, the alter ego he has now made eight films with – and also the kick-off of Depp’s movie stardom. As the title character, a deeply damaged otherworldly boy with the pale face of a scarred mime, the buckled leather bodysuit of a gimp S&M freak, the hair of the Cure’s Robert Smith, and a set of razory threshers where his hands and fingers should be, Depp projects a poetic quality of loss and disconnection, and the movie basically says: Wouldn’t you feel the same way if it became a lethal threat every time you wanted to hug someone? Yet Edward isn’t just a sensitive basket case – he’s a sculptor who transforms his abnormality into saintly, cockeyed art. Set to Danny Elfman’s greatest score, Edward Scissorhands is sentimental and scathing, confectionary and memorable – a punk fairy tale encased in a Christmas snow globe.
1. “Ed Wood” (1994)
It is Burton’s most transcendent film, for many reasons. It’s by far his most personal statement: a primal story of filmmaking, in all its toy-train-set wonder and screw-loose logistics. It features Johnny Depp’s most inspired performance – as Edward D. Wood Jr., the ’50s Hollywood Poverty Row hanger-on who was famously the worst director of all time, as well as a devoted (and unapologetic) cross-dresser, and who Depp plays with a pop-eyed pluck and I-gotta-be-me! ardour that makes him seem a magical naïf. In the end, though, the sublimity of Ed Wood – it’s there in the visionary script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and in the gorgeous flow and humanity and burnished black-and-white luster of Burton’s direction – is how it recognises that Wood, in the very innocence of his ineptitude, may have been one of the most passionate filmmakers who ever lived. Ed Wood stands in supremely ironic awe of a director who made movies like a child – he didn’t film them, he scrawled them, spectacularly badly yet out of sheer love. His collaboration with the has-been, morphine-junkie Bela Lugosi (a brilliant Martin Landau) becomes the tale of two beautiful losers who found each other – and something timeless – at the decrepit end of the Hollywood rainbow.
By Owen Gleiberman for Variety.