Overview: I’m a fan of Tim Burton but I can’t unequivocally say I’m a fan of the Gothic art that inspires Burton himself. In other words, if Tim Burton and I were to walk through an art gallery, I’m sure we’d be drawn to different paintings, but I would still want to see the world through Tim Burton’s eyes. Burton’s visual style can best be described as if a city’s architecture were modelled on the interior of a Halloween haunted house with a dash of German Expressionism thrown in.
Burton is one of the most visually distinctive directors of moviedom today. He is apologetically drawn to the same thematic and stylistic territory through roughly thirty years and counting, and his fans have mostly been onboard. Thematically, Burton loves stories of outsiders and estrangement. Negligent or completely absent parents are a common theme. In terms of source material, he’s chosen a comic series about a superhero filling in the hole of his dead parents (Batman), an orphanage for children (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), a girl named Alice who must have some pretty free range parents if they leave her alone to her own devices so much (Alice in Wonderland), and Willy Wonka whose emotionally distant dad (Christopher Lee in one of his best roles) is posited as the source for his loopiness. On top of that, Big Fish is about a man who can’t separate the fact and fiction of his father which is sufficient meta-commentary on the emotional distance between a kid and his father.
The two least Burtonesque films outside of the ones done as studio favors (Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks) were rich biographical examinations of artists that inspired the director: Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood and Margaret Keane in Big Eyes. Unlike his Planet of the Apes remake, which no one really thinks of as a necessary installment in Tim Burton’s filmography, these two films epitomize Burton’s vision but in a more personal way.
What makes Burton worth watching isn’t just his visual prowess or his singular vision, but he deserves credit for handling human relationships as well. Whether it’s relationships between people and their found families, romance, mentor-protége relationships or father-son, there’s a certain sugary sweetness that the fantastical nature of his stories can give him leeway to pull off.
A Brief Biography: Tim Burton was born to a murderous barber and a the Queen of Hearts—okay, seriously, Tim Burton was born in Burbank to a father who was a minor league player before settling to work in the parks and recreation department (probably not as fun as the 2009 NBC show) and a mother who owned a cat-themed gift shop (that sounds pretty interesting). Just like many of his characters, he found his suburban life bland, felt disconnected from his father, and was very much a withdrawn loner in school. He did play water polo at Burbank High School, however (anyone know where that places you on the social food chain in Southern California high schools?). Another commonality that he has with the protagonist from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was that from age ten to his high school graduation the left his parents to live with his grandmother.
Burton watched a lot of old-school horror films, B-movies, German expressionist films, and was especially intrigued by Vincent Price. He first gained notice for his artistic talent through winning a local contest by designing an anti-litter poster. After high school, he was accepted on scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts which was dubbed by the LA Times as the “Harvard Business School of animation.” Although the CIA has turned out directors like Sofia Coppola and James Mangold, the vast majority of its alumni are animators and a lot of them (at least at the time Burton graduated) went straight to work for Disney. Despite not having a style that meshed with Disney’s family-friendly vision, Burton took advantage of the job placement and worked at Disney. As one would expect, Burton clashed with colleagues but contributed to a couple of Disney features in the 80s and still impressed them enough with his talent that he got the green light to make “Vincent” with a $60,000 budget. “Vincent” is about a young kid who was obsessed with Vincent Price which, again, is pretty autobiographical. He then made his first live-action short, “Frankenweenie,” which was turned into a 2012 film. Then Paul Ruebens came along and eventually Beetlejuice and Batman and that gave him box office clout.
Throughout his filmography, Burton would be careful to keep an eye on pre-existing intellectual properties so he could justify big budgets because those ornate gothic visions don’t come cheap. Today, Tim Burton lives in Ojai and although he hasn’t spoken with his father since high school (although it’s possible that his father died since I read this), he has a younger brother, Danny, who’s a working artist and supposedly is more avant-garde than Tim. He’s also associated romantically with Helena Bonham Carter who he’s not technically married to (as far as my research shows). He is often recognized in public with his disheveled hair and dark sunglasses.
A couple more interesting bits of trivia: He revealed on the Batman DVD commentary that he was “banned” from comic con for his film deviating from the canon. Also, Joel Schumacher who many believe to have ruined what Tim Burton built with Batman is good friends with Burton.
How many have I seen: Thanks to a Tim Burton discussion I attended at DC’s Cinema Lounge in which I was forced to up my game, I’m up to 8. It’s also possible that I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as a kid and don’t remember it. The others are Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Big Eyes.
My Favorite: There are three films on this list I think are absolutely brilliant, but I’ll stick with the one that’s his most highly praised film (though I’m sure there will always be debate): Ed Wood. The concept portraying history’s worst film maker as a success story because the man never knew who bad he was – is gold which gives the film a solid headstart. The execution is even better: There’s the scene in which he gets advice from Orson Welles and the decision to stop the film as they’re walking into the premiere (a la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). As previously stated, this is a film with less visual showmanship, but the film still has its touches. One thing that’s a little disappointing on a rewatch I had a few years ago: Johnny Depp doesn’t really show as much range here as he usually does and his overeager naivette is a little overly reminiscent of the way he chose to portray Willy Wonka.
Underrated: I’m going to break my rule and go with a tie. I’m sorry! Because it was released on Christmas day of 2014 by the Weinstein Company, Big Eyes got a fair amount of Oscar hype but its bad box office cooled the movie’s awards season hopes significantly although it got some love at the Golden Globes. Too bad because this is a very unique experience. It’s a can-do story of underdog artists that pulls the wool over our eyes midway through as it morphs into a full-on domestic horror film. Christophe Waltz goes from sly opportunist to the husband from Hell and the culminating courtroom finale is a great female empowerment moment.
Batman Returns is a film I felt somewhat frightened of as a child, but as I’ve grown older and have seen more Burton films, I’ve come to see it as the most quintessentially Burtonesque work and a triumph of the man to be able to meld his style beautifully with a pre-existing story. The 1989 Batman suffers from the same problem that The Dark Knight did (at least in my eyes): The Joker is a villain that lends itself to actor bravado. Batman Returns, in contrast, (and the rest of Nolan’s trilogy) has a much more balanced story that allows the director to be more of the star. The film is fantastical, absurdist and strangely grounded in two origin stories that seem like more than just excuses to get the film from the first to second acts. Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer really own their parts but the exposition for Cat Woman and the slow creep of The Penguin into the scene are both delicious. (The Penguin is first revealed after the prologue, as a deformed hand jutting out of a sewer grate as a newspaper alludes to him in its headline. Later you see his lair and minions before seeing the Penguin in the flesh.) The design of Wayne manor and the playful villainy of the Red Triangle Gang are also highlights. The film ends on a tragic note but with its artistry, it’s a tragedy of epic proportions.
Overrated: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve always found the source material weird and kind of a misguided allegory, and the Gene Wilder version creeped me out as a child, so I might not have been the ideal audience for this. Burton handles the adaptation kind of well and properly highlights the holes the novel doesn’t really explore: Willy Wonka is kind of a cruel and weird person that children might not want to idolize so much just because he has candy. However, the visual scheme didn’t really do it for me. The bright colors looked kindergartenish, the army of identical little people was more aggressive-looking than charming, and I couldn’t tell if the film was trying to make commentary on Michael Jackson (who was kind of hated by the public at the time) and felt the film should have gone one way or another with it.
Blind spots: The three most acclaimed films I haven’t seen are Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, and Beetlejuice. My idea for this entire feature (the blind spots part) came about because a movie theater usher gave me one of those “You haven’t seen ____?! How can you call yourself a movie person without seeing ___” when I told him I didn’t see Beetlejuice. I think I’ll forever proudly define myself as the guy who has never seen Beetlejuice just to piss off my usher friend now. Sweeney Todd – the story of a murderous barber – sounds like the exact opposite of what I’m looking for in a musical. Other than that: I just saw the trailer for Mars Attacks! and that looks really interesting. The film apparently flew under the radar because Independence Day eclipsed it at the box office and gobbled up the “weird alien movie” press that year. Big Fish, I hear is a great great film, and I’m happy agreeing with that assessment without having watched it. I just have a hunch based on what I’ve read. I’d watch it too, but if I have to pick one, I would go with Mars Attacks!
Filmography as Director (20 films)
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Big Eyes (2014)
Dark Shadows (2012)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005) (Co-Director)
Big Fish (2003)
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Ed Wood (1994)
Batman Returns (1992)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
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But please fill us in (and let’s hope I picked a director this week, who a lot of people have seen a lot of): How many films have you seen of Tim Burton?