With the release of Dumbo, we look at the career of director Tim Burton, from his worst movie to his best. Over the course of close to 35 years, Burton has gone from being a cult favorite outsider to a blockbuster marvel, to one of the most profitable directors of all time. The goth animator who was supposedly fired from Disney for not being child friendly enough has become one of the studio’s most reliable creative forces.
In a sea of superhero franchises and mega budget spectacles, it's amazing that Burton has managed to become so popular in that cultural context, beloved by so many people, all while maintaining the same aesthetic and commitment to the themes he’s been obsessed with for over three decades. Audiences know a Tim Burton film when they see it, regardless of budget or scale, and that’s something of an achievement given how long he’s been around. He’s never compromised, he’s always worked with the same actors he loves, he tells tales that explore his fascinations with the macabre, and all of that has led to him becoming one of the highest-grossing directors ever.
Tim Burton's work is so distinctive that there's even a whole new word to describe it - Burtonesque. A Tim Burton movie can typically be recognized by its love of, as one character in Beetlejuice describes herself, the strange and unusual. He’s a director who loves Edgar Allan Poe and Hammer Horror, German expressionism and high camp, the gory and the melancholy. The weirdos in his worlds are the normal ones, while the suburban dwelling regular folks are the ones to be weary of.
And now, Dumbo marks Burton’s 19th feature film. After helping to kick off Disney’s live-action remake trend with Alice in Wonderland, he’s returned to breathe new life into one of the studio’s oldest and saddest movies. The Dumbo movie reunites the director with actors like Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, and Eva Green. But how does it stack up to the rest of Burton’s filmography? We take a look at all 19 Tim Burton movies (not including the shorts) and rank them from worst to his absolute best.
- This Page: Tim Burton Movies #19-16
- Page 2: Tim Burton Movies #15-12
- Page 3: Tim Burton Movies #11-8
- Page 4: Tim Burton Movies #7-4
- Page 5: Tim Burton Movies #3-1
19. Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton making a movie of Lewis Carroll’s iconic children's novel seemed like the perfect combination of director and source material. Surely the mixture of melancholy, nonsense and surreal would prove a rich breeding ground for the man who made his name as arguably the most visually idiosyncratic auteur of the blockbuster age? The end result, however, is easily his most uninspired film, a hodgepodge of images and inspirations from much better sources forced into a hero's journey narrative that misses the entire point of the novel's deliberately languid structure.
It didn't help that Alice in Wonderland was converted into 3D, thus draining its cinematography of any vibrancy. Most of the cast are trying their hardest with the material, but Johnny Depp's turn as the Mad Hatter signaled the beginning of the creatively bereft latter period of his career, wherein the wigs seem to be doing most of the acting. Still, the film was wildly successful, making Disney over $1 billion and helping to kick off their current age of live-action remakes. That commercial frenzy only makes this film a bigger disappointment in terms of Burton's work because it seemed to herald a new period of his filmography where he didn't seem especially enthused by his own movies. That's why Alice in Wonderland is easily the worst of the Tim Burton movies.
18. The Planet of the Apes
It’s easy to forget just how big a deal it was when it was announced that Tim Burton would be remaking the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes. To be more accurate, Burton called the film his "re-imagining" of the original Planet of the Apes, and that term became a punchline for many a failed remake in the following years. With a $100 million budget from 20th Century Fox, the legendary Rick Baker signed on to design the astounding makeup. And with a cast including Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Paul Giamatti, and Helena Bonham Carter, Planet of the Apes seemed like a sure-fire hit.
Of all of the Tim Burton movies, it’s Planet of the Apes that feels the least like a Tim Burton movie. Indeed, one would be forgiven for thinking someone else did all the work and he took the credit because not only is this film bereft of Burton’s favored styles and ideas, its approach is so stagnant and could have been done by anyone. The screenplay's attempts to pay homage to the original movie while putting new twists on iconic moments fell flat and were incomprehensible in some cases, including an ending that even Tim Roth didn't understand. Planet of the Apes did decently at the box office, but it didn’t inspire a new franchise like Fox had hoped. And so, Burton, understandably, moved onto a much smaller project.
17. Big Eyes
After a couple of years of disappointing movie critics, many thought that Big Eyes would be a return to form for Tim Burton, a new Ed Wood of sorts to show how adept he is at more conventional biographical dramas while remaining faithful to his roots. Alas, the end result was far less satisfying than that, and it did little to reverse growing critical cynicism. Based on the true story of Margaret Keane, a painter whose eerie works of children with large emotional eyes were passed off as the work of her exploitative husband, Big Eyes seemed to have a lot going for it and garnered early awards buzz for the performance of Amy Adams (she would win a Golden Globe but didn't land an Oscar nomination as some had predicted).
Big Eyes is more dull than anything else, and Christoph Waltz, who hams it up to near unfathomable levels, seems to think he’s in a far different movie. All the pieces were there for something special, but Big Eyes is a Tim Burton movie that, bar Adams’ luminous performance, struggles to justify its own existence.
16. Dark Shadows
The 1960s series Dark Shadows was ground-breaking in its day, a gothic soap opera at a time when the genre was mostly focused on realist domestic drama. It's not hard to see why Tim Burton of all people would be so drawn to it as a child, and Johnny Depp also cited the big screen adaptation as a dream project. The story of a vampire who awakens in the 1970s and loves in with his descendants is ripe for melodrama and fish-out-of-water humor but so many of the jokes land oddly flat. It never settles on a tone and struggles to juggle kitsch with horror. As gorgeous as it looks - and, as always with a Tim Burton movie, the details are astounding - there's little going on beneath the surface. Its saving grace comes in the form of an extremely game Eva Green, who is having the time of her life as the witchy antagonist.