11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Author Roald Dahl famously hated the first adaptation of his book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He disliked the changes made to deviate from the novel and opposed the decision to focus on Willy Wonka over Charlie Bucket (he also didn’t care for the casting of Gene Wilder, preferring British comedian Spike Milligan for the role). When it came time to remake the film, it went through various stars (Nicolas Cage, Adam Sandler, and Bill Murray were all considered for Wonka) and directors before Tim Burton joined the project. Burton was also the Dahl estate's choice for the job, which proved beneficial for Warner Bros. in getting their approval for the film.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is far more faithful to Dahl's book, not only in terms of plot but in tone. Dahl's deliciously sinister approach to children's fiction is in full display here and feels like a perfect fit for Burton’s brand of glee. While some of the CGI hasn't aged well, the chocolate factory has never looked more sumptuous. Johnny Depp may have gotten all the headlines for his pseudo-Michael Jackson homage performance as Wonka, but the real star of the Tim Burton movie is Freddie Highmore as Charlie. What stops it from being top-tier Burton is a shoehorned in backstory for Wonka that can easily be boiled down to “daddy issues”. The film is much smarter when it reveals nothing about why Wonka is the way he is and simply lets the audience indulge in the pure imagination of his world.
10. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Paul Reubens' Pee-wee Herman has remained a beloved character for kids and adults alike since his TV debut in 1981. The frantic entertainer, both terminally delightful and completely bonkers, made the leap to the big screen in 1985, and a post-Disney Tim Burton was looking for a new gig. Reubens, who was a fan of his Disney shorts, hired Burton and gave him his feature directorial debut.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure isn’t a film that can neatly be described as a Tim Burton movie in the traditional sense. This is Reubens’ creation through and through. However, there are moments peppered throughout that reveal the sort of director Burton would become, such as the Large Marge scene that remains nightmare fuel for an entire generation. Burton manages to keep Reubens on a tight enough leash so that Pee-wee’s unpredictability doesn’t derail the entire movie. It’s also the film that introduced Burton to Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman and birth the most committed creative partnership of both their careers. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure made close to six times its original budget back, put Burton’s name on the map, and the rest is history.
9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The legendary composer Stephen Sondheim is massively beloved and arguably the most influential figure in musical theater of the past several decades. However, he’s not someone whose work has been favored by Hollywood for adaptation. His deftly complex compositions and operatic approach to the medium make him a tricky prospect for any filmmaker hoping to translate his work to cinema. Of the scant number of Sondheim adaptations we have, Burton’s Sweeney Todd is easily the best.
Another seemingly perfect match of material and creator, the Tim Burton movie version of the mythic barber, who murders his clients and has them turned into pies, includes heavy influences from Hammer Horror. It’s a proudly bleak story of bad people doing bad things, with a body count and volume of spilled blood high enough to rival any slasher movie. Everyone involved is giving it their all, imbuing this narrative with such verve and enthusiasm, to the point that audiences almost forget this is one of the most depressing musicals ever written. The singing, while decent enough, cannot help but let the story down on some level. Sondheim’s lyrical style demands only the strongest voices, and while Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp have their charms, the music deserves more. Still, when everything else in the story is firing on all cylinders, it’s an element that’s easy to forgive.
8. Mars Attacks!
While the typical Tim Burton movie is discussed in terms of its gothic style and macabre tone, it’s oft-overlooked how incredibly earnest his work is. Burton isn’t afraid of sentimentality or emotional catharsis, even when it seems at odds with his bleak visuals. The exception to this rule is Mars Attacks! Based on a series of Topps trading cards from the 1960s, the madcap homage to science-fiction B-Movies of the 1950s is Burton at his most sardonic. It’s a cynical Generation X approach to the alien invasion genre, one where the mere thought of sentimentality is shot to pieces with laser guns.
Chock full of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, each of them playing characters more awful than the last, Mars Attacks! suffered from being released in the same year as Independence Day, an unabashedly crowd-pleasing blockbuster that has no qualms with playing worldwide catastrophic destruction for cheers and awe. By comparison, Mars Attacks! mocks everything that film does so earnestly. That’s no bad thing, for the end result is easily the funniest Tim Burton movie, and one that’s only gotten better with age. A flop upon release that opened to tepid reviews, Mars Attacks! definitely deserves a revisit.