With a career spanning four decades, amounting an impressive filmography of eighteen varying movies, Tim Burton is one of the most unique and creative talents to emerge in Hollywood in the past thirty years.
Possessing a rich background as an artist and animator, his gothic visual sensibilities, preference for quirky stories and overall originality has resulted in mass appeal as a filmmaker. A true auteur, Burton utilizes an eccentric, striking and now unmistakable dark style, while intertwining it with an array of reoccurring themes and motifs; not limited to isolation, suburbia, loneliness, stripy patterns and Tom Jones music.
A common criticism of Burton though, is that he is only as good as the scripts he receives; that the material can only be elevated by his keen visual sense, rather than any distinct skill as a storyteller.
While there are indeed a number of perfect ventures in his eclectic body of work (Batman, Ed Wood), there are a handful of other films that, in a varying number of ways, arguably squander their brilliance.
This is applicable to the following films on this list. While a fine director, Burton is frustrating in the sense that so many of his projects excel in some areas, but woefully falter in others. It should be stressed that none of these films are bad, but were (irritatingly) only a few shades away from being great, or at the very least more interesting.
Beetlejuice’s ultimate disappointment is that the overall narrative falls short of its amazing premise: a compelling and unique twist on the haunted house routine, involving unhappy ghosts, obnoxious new homeowners and a “bio-exorcist”.
In the film however, this all feels a little more muddled than it should do. The plot and characters seem to be subordinate to the film’s zaniness, as Burton’s love for everything quirky outshines what easily could have been a satisfying, streamlined narrative.
It lacks breathing room away from its craziness, restricting sufficient time to become invested in the characters. With a premature leap into absurdity within the first 10 minutes, it quickly loses focus on our appealing heroes, Adam and Barbara; who inexplicably have equal screen time to the far less interesting Deetz couple.
With that, the hilarious Michael Keaton is criminally underutilized. He zooms in and out of the film, lacking screen time and proper story involvement. While still incredibly funny, he serves as a madcap side-character rather than a solid antagonist.
Additionally, character relationships are regretfully sketchy. The rivalry between Adam and Barbara and the invading yuppies, as well as their budding parental relationship with Winona Ryder, feels a tad understated throughout the film. You’ll find yourself lauding the movie’s technical inventiveness more than anything else.
Some will argue that Beetlejuice serves as Burton’s surreal art-piece more so than a conventionally scripted film, yet it’s nonetheless frustrating as all of the elements are in place for a great story. Coupled with the great effects and cast, Burton could have effortlessly hit the bullseye if Beetlejuice were more dramatically engaging.
4. Sleepy Hollow
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow allowed for Burton to shine in an area he unquestionably understands – the horror film. However, this rather loose adaptation attempts a little more than that.
On the positive side, Burton treats us to some of his finest dark imagery: including the formidable headless horseman; vague, ethereal dream sequences; and best of all, the strangely picturesque tree of the dead.
Yet once again it’s the story that suffers. Getting bogged down in a needlessly heavy plot involving the town’s government and somebody’s last will and testament, it eventually evolves into a kind of tame whodunit/revenge story. By spelling almost everything out for us, it unfortunately lacks the ambiguity and eeriness of the original short story, and also deflates the stronger first half of the film.
Sleepy Hollow was also a sad indication of Burton’s occasional over-reliance on computer tech. Along with some bursts of cartoony (and dated) CGI, the general look of the film appears too digitally “corrected”, and is distractingly at odds with the traditional, old-world setting it is trying to present.
It would have been interesting to see Burton turn Sleepy Hollow into a minimalist horror piece. With the gothic visuals, a dark tone, atmosphere and scarce story could have made for a nightmarish horror tale; something similar to 2015’s The Witch. Being such a horror fan with a naturally dark aesthetic, it’s unfortunate that Burton himself has only ever flirted with the genre.
3. Dark Shadows
Dark Shadows has a lot going for it. Fundamentally, despite being an expensive reboot, the film has a nice sincerity to it that abolishes much sense of cynical committee thinking, and rather, feels like a venture lovingly overseen by both Burton and Johnny Depp. Indeed, there is much respect for the original soap opera here, but this is ironically where the problems stem from.
Primarily, Burton seemingly couldn’t remove himself from the serial-like nature of the source material. Instead of a compact narrative, Dark Shadows feels more like a compilation of vaguely related scenes taken from the show. It adapts half-a-dozen plotlines and clumsily attempts to truncate and squeeze them into a two-hour movie, rendering things untidy both narratively and tonally.
In addition to its earnestness, it has the usual positive staples of a Tim Burton film. The cast and their interactions are great, and you’ll likely be wishing for more of it; Helena Bonham Cater in particular lacks screen time, but Johnny Depp gives his most charming performance in a Burton project since Ed Wood. The production design, makeup and general look of the film also, are all nicely spooky.
While at its emotional core there is a love story, there will typically always be around three other things to distract you from that. Depp’s love interest, incidentally, erratically vanishes and reappears throughout the film, as do various subplots regarding her troubled past, the family’s fishing company, and their nephew’s dead Mother.
A multi-strand story can work if the elements are somehow cleverly interwoven, but storylines pop up only at the film’s convenience, filling Dark Shadows with several unresolved matters and odd contrivances.
2. Alice In Wonderland
After Disney’s irritating trend of remaking their classic animated features, you might be thinking, in hindsight, that Alice in Wonderland can be given credit for venturing into new story territory. Serving more as a sequel to the original book, the idea is certainly interesting, but little saves the movie from being resoundingly dull.
Ironically, it might have fared better if it were a straight adaptation of Carroll’s novel, as Burton and his team of designers exceed at the surreal aspects. While the CGI is ugly and vapid in parts, specific character designs are all imaginative and nicely endearing (including the elusive Cheshire Cat, the deranged March Hare, and a tart-stealing frog).
Enlivened by the stellar voice cast, Alice might have made for an enjoyably inventive surrealist piece, but is dragged down by a semi-cohesive and needlessly large-scale plot.
There are some distracting corporate-driven issues that likely hinder the film in many places. Aside from being converted to nauseating 3D, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is rendered a cornerstone of the narrative, for little reason other than the fact that it’s Johnny Depp. Also, Disney apparently felt the need to inject some LOTR-style action into the picture, tacking on some formulaic, harebrained “chosen one” plot.
Equally baffling is Alice’s motives throughout the film. Believing herself to be in a dream and her experiences to be inconsequential, you’ll constantly find yourself asking not “what is her motivation?” but “why does she even have motivation?”
Such glaring story errors are quite mystifying; this late in Burton’s career, you’d fairly assume he should know what makes a movie click. Can’t wait for his live action Dumbo movie (sigh).
1. Mars Attacks!
What might be the most divisive film in Burton’s entire filmography could be viewed as an interesting satirical piece, but disappoints at almost every turn as a solid comedic work.
Most disturbingly, for what is promised as a farcical comedy picture, Mars Attacks suffers from a severe lack of gags. While the real stars are the dangerously madcap aliens, they are mysteriously subdued following their glorious introduction, where the film instead opts to indulge in its widespread gallery of mundane human characters.
Throughout, Mars Attacks manages a steady escalation into absurdity, but really needed to go leaping for the jugular, something akin to Gremlins or even Beetlejuice.
The big laughs only occur when the film wallows in its own lunacy. Notable scenes include: a wonderful (but fleeting) montage sequence of the full-scale invasion; the Martians laughably mocking nuclear weapons; and their ultimate demise at the echoing yodels of Slim Whitman. The Martians are destroying humanity purely for the fun of it, yet we rarely see them having any fun.
Defenders of the film may note Burton’s intentional audacity with Mars Attacks – to purposefully create something scathing and subversive to your typical summer film. Indeed, he refuses to give focus in his large-scale story and ruthlessly kills off his big-name actors, but you’ll never know if that’s satire or just sloppy storytelling.
Glenn Close is second-billed in the film, however you’ll be very hard-pressed to recall if she had any lines. Someone will argue that this is all part of the film’s satirical joke, yet it’s a joke that isn’t funny or interesting.
But at least it’s better than Independence Day…