A consistently quirky and visually inventive director, Tim Burton’s career has followed a steady path through some of the most iconic settings in recent cinema history, from the cod-Gothic streets of Gotham, to a future(past?)-Earth ruled by apes, to the haunted woods of 18th Century New England, and the outer limits of Lewis Carroll’s vivid imagination. For over thirty years, ever since the release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the wild-haired director has taken us on startling journey after startling journey, and kept us entertained throughout. If his more recent output hasn’t exactly overwhelmed critics and audiences in the way that previous movies have, Burton still has the capacity to excite and stimulate his admirers in a way that few other directors can. This explains the level of anticipation surrounding his latest feature, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (due later this year), a movie that seems a perfect fit for Burton’s own “peculiar” sensibility. Whether or not it will be as successful as the movies listed below, no one knows – yet* – but if it is, then it will be interesting to see just how successful it is… and how far up the list it lands.
10 – Corpse Bride (2005) – $117,195,061
A companion piece to Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with its songs, portrayal of a darker world beyond ours, and stylised animation, Corpse Bride has a lyrical quality to it that highlights the sweetness of the relationship that develops between the nervous Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) and the Corpse Bride herself, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter). Burton’s love of animation and its visual possibilities shines through here, as he depicts a world at once familiar and yet also removed from our own, and tugs at our heartstrings in often surprising, yet affecting ways.
9 – Big Fish (2003) – $122,919,055
A terrific cast – headed by Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney – and Burton’s use of fantasy to illustrate the differences (and similarities) between a father and son, helps Big Fish to branch out in unexpected dramatic directions for most of its running time. After the critical debacle of Planet of the Apes, Burton’s foray into what could be loosely termed the Great American Saga is a winning, immensely enjoyable fable that mixes drama, comedy and a delightful imagination to create a uniquely heartfelt story, and is one of Burton’s shamefully under-appreciated features.
8 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – $152,523,164
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – making a musical together? While the subject matter may well have been a good fit for Burton given his love of Hammer horror movies, an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler Broadway success looked like it would fall as flat as Depp’s singing voice. But an arresting production design, plenty of gory throat cuttings, vivid presentations of the songs, and a well-chosen supporting cast all help to make Burton’s incursion into the world of the musical a triumphant success, and one of the best of its kind in recent years.
7 – Sleepy Hollow (1999) – $206,071,502
One of Burton’s more enjoyable romps, Sleepy Hollow is another movie that seems to have been tailor-made for him. The bleak New England setting, the palpable sense of fear amongst the townfolk, and a memorable villain in the Headless Horseman, all contrive to make the movie an ominous yet light-hearted escapade that has a great deal of energy and purpose about it. The period setting, and its science versus the supernatural angle, is deftly handled, and Johnny Depp gives one of his better performances as the in over his (potentially decapitated) head policeman, Ichabod Crane.
6 – Dark Shadows (2012) – $245,527,149
A big fan of the original televison show that ran from 1966-1971, Burton’s take on the Collins’ clan of vampires and their home town of Collinsport, Maine proved to be a misfire that relied way too much on its comedic elements (which aren’t that funny to begin with), and never managed to find a consistent tone. Johnny Depp serves up a prime slice of ham, Eva Green tries to match him, and Burton’s direction feels like it was put together in the editing suite. Even the visuals have a flat, uninspired air about them, as if Burton and his team realised early on that their passion for the project wasn’t going to be enough.
5 – Batman Returns (1992) – $266,822,354
For some, Batman Returns will always be the best of the quartet of Caped Crusader movies made back in the late Eighties/Nineties, and in terms of the story and the plotting, they’d be right. It also sees Burton’s wild and wonderful imagination given even freer reign than on the first movie. Another triumph of production design, Burton’s Gotham is a heavily stylised, bleakly functional place that is the perfect backdrop for its tale of good versus evil. And any movie that features Michelle Pfeiffer in figure-hugging black leather…
4 – Planet of the Apes (2001) – $362,211,740
If there’s one movie in Burton’s oeuvre that really shouts “massive mistake!” it’s the often unbearable-to-watch Planet of the Apes. Remakes of beloved classics rarely turn out well, and this proved the rule. Whether it’s the miscasting of Wahlberg, the terrible script that couldn’t be its own thing and had to keep referencing the 1968 original, the recurring sense of déja vu that dogs the movie as a result, or the defiantly daft-as-a-box-of-frogs surprise ending, the problems are all topped by Burton’s almost complete lack of engagement with the material. There’s a sci-fi movie that Burton could direct out there somewhere, but this definitely isn’t it.
3 – Batman (1989) – $411,348,924
By the time Burton was earmarked to make Warner Bros.’ new take on Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, he’d achieved a modicum of success and respect thanks to his two previous features, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988). Batman, though, launched Burton’s career into the stratosphere. It was a brave move on the part of Warner Bros., but Burton rewarded them with a take on the Dark Knight that was at once visionary, bold, and inherently psychological. With strong performances from Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger (usually overlooked, and unfairly so), it’s biggest coup was Jack Nicholson as the Joker, a dazzling, out-there portrayal that in its own, surprisingly effective way, is a match for any other interpretation of the character that’s, well… out there.
2 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – $474,968,763
Roald Dahl and Tim Burton seem like an obvious combination, and it took a while for them to be “teamed up”, but the results were mixed to say the least. While financially successful, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lacks a lot of the charm of the original, and some of the additions to the script shift the focus away from Charlie himself, and onto Willy Wonka (something Dahl probably wouldn’t have approved of). Along with the movie in the No. 1 spot, it’s also a movie that has been production designed to death, leaving each new “moment of wonder” much like all the rest, and blending into one. Burton reflects on notions of fatherhood and abandonment – a common theme in his movies – but here they feel tired, leaving only Freddie Highmore’s quietly impressive performance for audiences to respond to.
1 – Alice in Wonderland (2010) – $1,025,467,110
Burton’s most successful movie at the box office is not his best, and like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features a riotous production design that helps paper over the cracks of a wayward script and equally wayward performances. Burton’s usual flair for the bizarre is firmly on display but in such a watered-down fashion that it’s difficult to work out if he was fully engaged with the material (he’s always seemed more at home working on a movie’s pre-production than on the actual shoot). Looking back at the movie, it’s hard to see why Alice in Wonderland has been so successful, as it’s colour-rich phantasmagoria lack the kind of emotional investment to make it all work as it should, and Johnny Depp provides yet another irritating performance. But ultimately it’s Burton’s distance from proceedings that hurts the movie most, and makes it a less than rewarding experience.
*Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been as successful as everyone hoped. As of 21 October 2016 it’s made $200,165,118 at the international box office.