Where to begin with Tim Burton

A beginner’s path through the gothic wonderlands of Tim Burton.

Batman (1989)

Why this might not seem so easy

One of the most iconic Hollywood filmmakers working today, Tim Burton has developed a visual style so recognisable that it has crystallised into an adjective – and arguably into a cliché. Often copied, frequently parodied, but never bettered, his Burtonesque world of skewed angles and twisted trees is the perfect accompaniment to his darkly humorous gothic tales of lonely outsiders.

Time and again, Burton has furnished American cinema with some of its most memorable images. Indeed, even critical failures like his underrated ‘reimagining’ of Planet of the Apes (2001) make use of a painterly pallet and striking compositions. Still, as Apes demonstrates, Burton’s grasp of coherent storytelling isn’t always as strong as his visual styling, and his offbeat sensibility renders him a perennial outsider – a genuine artist working within a business-driven medium.

Perhaps in recognition of this, Burton’s work frequently straddles the line between major blockbuster and quirky independent, filtering his love for B-movie aesthetics into the A-list Hollywood mainstream. Though lightened by humour and a pitch-perfect amount of sentiment, these films revel in the macabre, and there’s no denying the darkness that underlies Burton’s vision, even in the works ostensibly made for younger audiences. 

The best place to start – Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Burton’s most commonly recurring theme is that of not fitting in and the eponymous hero of Edward Scissorhands (1990) is its clearest expression. The unfinished creation of an elderly inventor (Vincent Price), Edward (Johnny Depp) is left with hands made of scissors when the inventor suddenly dies. Edward remains alone in his creator’s large gothic mansion until, several years later, Peg (Dianne Wiest), a local Avon representative, comes calling.

Moved by what she finds, Peg takes Edward back to the brightly coloured world of suburbia and offers him a home and a family – but with hands made of scissors, Edward remains the ultimate square peg. Not only does he not fit in, but he can’t even touch those around him.

A beautiful, haunting fairytale, Edward Scissorhands is at once a reinvention of classic horror (the presence of Price is no accident), a quirky comedic fable and a transmuted autobiography – for Edward’s isolation is the one felt by a teenage Burton while growing up in suburban Burbank, California. In all, it’s quintessential Burton, through and through.

At the time the film was made, Depp was best known as a teen idol (notably for the TV series 21 Jump Street), and his role as Edward was responsible for launching an eight-film collaboration with Burton, and for establishing him as an actor with a chameleon-like ability to immerse himself in his roles.

Two other notable collaborators on Edward Scissorhands are composer Danny Elfman (18 films with Burton) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (12 films).

What to watch next

Just as Price’s role in Edward Scissorhands pointed to Burton’s love of a certain type of cinema, the presence of Christopher Lee in five later films likewise indicates his debt to Hammer horror. The most detectable of these five is Sleepy Hollow (1999). Inspired by Washington Irving’s classic tale of a headless horseman, the film finds a forensic detective (Depp) sent to the eponymous Westchester County village to investigate a series of decapitations.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Burton’s only collaboration with superstar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, it remains his most resplendent work – and in a body of work like Burton’s, that’s really saying something.

Of course, Burton’s taste stretches beyond the horror genre, and with Mars Attacks! (1996) he created a riotously fun take on 1950s sci-fi. The film followed Ed Wood (1994), a biopic of Edward D. Wood Jr, who had himself made a number of classic so-bad-they’re-good B-movies in the 1950s, including the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Burton’s sensitive portrait of the so-called ‘worst director of all time’ saw Depp in the title role and, though more intimate in scope than much of Burton’s other work, it remains – for many – his greatest achievement.

Ed Wood (1994)

Despite the critical plaudits, however, Ed Wood was not a commercial success, unlike Burton’s Batman (1989) which, at the time, was the fifth highest-grossing film in US box office history. Inspired by the graphic novels of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Burton added a layer of psychological depth and gothic angst to the comic camp of previous Batman incarnations, thereby revolutionising screen depictions of superheroes and paving the way for the current glut of comic book adaptations.

After securing complete creative freedom for his 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, Burton descended further into darkness, causing an outcry among parents who deemed it unsuitable for their children. For many others, it remains the definitive screen incarnation of the Caped Crusader.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

An adult tone was also found in Burton’s blood-soaked 2007 take on Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which features handsome cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and superb production design by the legendary Dante Ferretti. The film marked Burton’s fourth foray into the musical genre, after the lacklustre Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and two brilliant stop-motion animated creepers: Corpse Bride (2005, co-directed with Mike Johnson) and The Nightmare before Christmas (1993, directed by Henry Selick, the film was based on a poem by Burton, who also produced). 

Stop motion likewise plays a memorable part in one of Burton’s most enjoyable films, the supernatural comedy Beetlejuice (1988), about a recently deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who, as ghosts, call upon the ‘bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to help them scare away the new inhabitants of their former home. 

Where not to start

In 2010 Burton released his loose reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Though not quite a sequel to the books, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland takes place 13 years after Carroll’s stories, and finds 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) fleeing to Wonderland to escape an undesirable marriage proposal. Ironically, though, the film’s overuse of CGI (over 90% was said to be filmed against green screens) renders it devoid of any real wonder, leaving it sorely lacking the kind of handcrafted perfection that made Burton’s earlier, stop-motion-filled work so enjoyable.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Still, six years later Burton crafted a more successful fantasy-action-adventure with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). Adapted from a novel by Ransom Riggs, the film centres on a school for gifted youngsters and, as such, plays like a teen X-Men. Despite the somewhat derivative premise, it manages to be both hauntingly imaginative and hugely entertaining.

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