Since the masses were introduced to both Tim Burton and Pee-wee Herman, with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Burton has helmed a total of 17 movies in the director’s chair. It’s been a weird and wonderful ride through darkly surreal characters and landscapes, the occasional big-budget blockbuster, a musical, and even a couple of animated kids’ films – and even they are infused with that characteristic Burton dark humor.
To be clear, this is a ranking only of films he has directed. He has injected some of his slightly askew sensibilities as producer in a bunch of others, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, which many people assume he directed because it looks and feels so much like a movie Burton would have directed, but was actually helmed by Henry Selick.
So turn on some Danny Elfman music and get ready to feel enjoyably uncomfortable as we help you reminisce through this list of All of Tim Burton’s Movies, Ranked.
Unfortunately, we have to start with one of the rare cases where Tim Burton just got it all wrong. The source material, on the other hand, got it all right. The original Dark Shadows is a cult-classic gothic soap opera that aired from 1966-’71, featuring the wealthy Collins family, including the vampire Barnabas, and a host of other monsters, witches and ghouls.
For his 2012 adaptation, Burton easily lured in frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, who also signed up as a co-producer because he loved the show and Barnabas so much. So, considering the source material, and Depp and Burton’s love for it, what could possibly go wrong? Goofiness. That’s what went wrong. They focused more on the goofy, campy fish-out-of-water comedy inherent in a 200-year-old vampire reacting to 21st century culture and less on the dark, gothic melodrama that made the series a cult classic. We will say, though, that the darkly beautiful visuals we’ve come to know and love from Burton were still there.
There’s clearly something about late-’60s/early-’70s cult classics that Burton is attracted to but has no idea how to translate to contemporary audiences. That was true with Dark Shadows and now again with Planet of the Apes, Burton’s 2001 adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg. It wasn’t a strict remake of the 1968 original starring Charlton Heston, with a different main character and, perhaps even more significantly, a different ending.
The ending of the original features an infamous twist, which we won’t spoil for the two of you who aren’t aware of it. Burton’s ending was a little more faithful to the novel that inspired the ‘68 film, but it also put a lot of people off for its ambiguity. In the DVD audio commentary, Burton shrugs the ending off as a cliffhanger springboard for a sequel (which was never made – the series rebooted more successfully 10 years later with Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Still, there are a few things to enjoy here: Tim Roth’s villainous performance and Rick Baker’s fantastic ape makeup among them.
Financially, Burton’s 2010 take on Alice in Wonderland was a Jabberwocky-sized success, earning over $1 billion and becoming his biggest box office success. No surprise, it earned a sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, which premieres May 27, 2016 (Burton gets a producer credit on that one, but didn’t direct). A Disney production, kids loved it, it was boosted by Depp’s star power as the Mad Hatter, and it truly was visually stunning, so it’s not all that surprising that it fared so well around the world.
Critically, on the other hand, there are a number of bones to pick. Burton was definitely the ideal director to take on the original Lewis Carroll novel’s surreal characters, situations and settings. What’s strange is he robbed it of much of its heart – a trait that’s so strong in much of Burton’s best work. Alice herself is more of a plot device than a true character, and the third act falls flat thanks in large part to a bombastic CGI battle scene, which was borrowed from the video game American McGee’s Alice, but seemed out of place in Carroll’s Wonderland.
Way back in 1820, Washington Irving published a creepy tale called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” where a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane is tortured by the legend, and possibly reality, of a ghostly headless horseman. At the end of the story, the horseman (ghost or not) kills Crane. In 1999, Burton brought the tale to the big screen with, obviously, Depp as Crane in Sleepy Hollow.
But Depp wasn’t the Crane we’ve come to know and love in the original tale and most other adaptations. The original was a superstitious schoolmaster, Depp’s was a skeptical cop. Many other liberties were taken with the plot. In fact, there are few similarities to the source material other than a character named Ichabod, a headless horseman and the setting of Sleepy Hollow. Even the ending, which we won’t spoil, is massively different. As always, though, with Burton movies, it’s worth watching for the visuals alone.
Here’s the funny thing: despite the name change, 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was more faithful (though to be fair, not completely faithful) to Roald Dahl’s original book than Burton’s faithfully named 2005 adaptation, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. To no one’s surprise, Depp played Willy Wonka in this one, and it was a downright weird portrayal. And not weird in the “Tim Burton’s films are wonderfully weird” sense. That would have been perfect. No, this was just weird. Like “way too influenced by Michael Jackson’s controversial later years” weird.
Burton’s film also introduced an entirely new and unnecessary plotline involving Wonka’s father as a device to explain Wonka’s odd behavior. Really, both films can be criticized for focusing too much on Wonka and less on the film’s hero, Charlie Bucket, who was wonderfully portrayed by a young Freddie Highmore. However, the film was a big box office draw, thanks to the kid factor.
Coming off the critical acclaim of Ed Wood, which was a departure for Burton in many ways, he returned with Mars Attacks! in 1996 with his weirdo guns ablaze. It was both a parody of the kinds of B-movies the real Ed Wood made and a motion picture take on the Mars Attacks trading cards series. When we say his weirdo guns were ablaze, we mean it. Of course, Burton’s trademark is that beautiful weirdness, and he’s rightfully beloved for it. But here he took it to the extreme. Let’s just say this: Johnny Depp actually turned down a role in this one. Although, truth be told, some people love it because it's so far out there, in a cult kind of way.
In his review, Roger Ebert said it best of this star-studded affair: "Ed Wood himself could have told us what's wrong with this movie: the makers felt superior to the material. To be funny, even schlock has to believe in itself.” Much of the dark humor just didn’t land, and it showed at the box office.
Here’s Burton’s most recent offering, from 2014, as we await this Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, opening in September. And it’s a rare case of a small budget, limited release film for the veteran director, with the budget coming in at just $10 million. Big Eyes is also a departure for Burton because it lacks much of the “weirdness” of most of his films. It’s a straight-up bio-pic about Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter (Christoph Walz) took credit for her paintings of people with big eyes.
It’s absolutely a solid film. In fact, it won Adams a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Comedy or Musical. It just doesn’t have that typical Burton voice. We might even rank it higher on an average director’s list, but Burton is no average director. We hold him up to a higher (read: weirder) standard.
2012’s Frankenweenie, based on Burton’s 1984 short film, offers pretty much exactly what the title implies: a Frankenstein story about a wiener dog. The black-and-white stop-motion film represents the second animated film Burton directed and the fourth he produced, and despite being a Disney children’s movie, it certainly features some of the trademark Burton dark humor, as a loving parody of the classic Frankenstein films.
It’s actually very much like an homage to Burton’s childhood, growing up loving old horror movies, with the story of a boy (named Victor Frankenstein, like Frankenstein’s protagonist) who loves his dog so much that when the dog dies he resurrects him using the power of electricity. Unfortunately, the film didn’t exactly light it up at the box office, vying for kids’ eyes at the time with the juggernaut that was Hotel Transylvania.
After Burton revitalized the superhero movie with 1989’s Batman, he returned in 1992 with Batman Returns. While it couldn’t live up to the original’s greatness, it was definitely a solid offering, with Michael Keaton once again squeezing into the Bat-suit. But where in the first film it was just Batman versus the Joker, this time we got an early taste of where so many superhero movies go wrong these days, with the introduction of too many villains. Here we had Batman versus the Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and an evil businessman named Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).
DeVito’s Penguin was a little disturbing at times, and certainly pathetic. Not nearly as frightening, as say, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first flick. But Pfeiffer filled out the Catsuit quite well. While it lacked some of the suspense of the first movie, some criticized it for being darker. Interestingly, Burton has said he liked this one better because it was “less dark.”
Hitting screens in 2005, Corpse Bride was the first animated feature that Burton directed (actually, he co-directed this, with Mike Johnson), following The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. It featured many of Burton’s favorite things: Johnny Depp (as the voice of Victor), Helena Bonham Carter (as the voice of Emily, the titular bride), stop-motion animation, and, well, death (and what comes after).
At the heart of it is a touching love story (a man taken from the love of his life, striving to return to her), wrapped within an animated musical – which almost sounds like a Disney movie (which this was not). It’s Burton’s inimitable stamp of macabre that lifts it out of that Disney zone and into something that is, simply put, Burtonesque.
Here’s the movie that thrust two beautifully bizarre people into the pop-culture consciousness in 1985: Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) went from fringe stage act and star of an HBO special, to movie star and star of his own popular Saturday morning TV show; and its director, Tim Burton surged from short-film director and animator to in-demand feature-film director. (It was also Burton’s first collaboration with Danny Elfman, who would go on to score most of his movies.)
If Burton was ever going to direct a live-action musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was definitely the right choice. It’s about as darkly odd as a musical can get, based on the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler Broadway production, about a 19th century British barber (played by Depp, perhaps in a nod to Edward Scissorhands’ hair styling prowess) who was wrongly exiled by a corrupt judge and plots revenge against him.
Todd becomes something of a manic killing machine, and in a suitably Burtonesque twist (although this comes from the play) his victims’ bodies are used in his neighbor’s meat pies. Even though Depp isn’t a singer, he is a musician and his rough-around-the-edges singing voice fits the role. In the end, this film has to be viewed as one of Burton’s most significant accomplishments: making a musical work for the masses, despite a lead who can’t sing, another who is a murderer, and buckets of blood splattering around the screen. Burton even directed Depp into an Oscar nomination for this role, while Depp did win a Golden Globe and the film won the Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
2003’s Big Fish was another rare occasion where Burton set aside much of the brilliant bizarre bombast he’s known for and made a quieter, subtler movie – although fantastical in its own way. It tells the tale of a dying man (played by Albert Finney as an old man and Ewan McGregor as a young man) telling his son (Billy Crudup) stories of his younger life, as they try to reconcile their differences.
It was a special film for Burton, and it shows, as the director was dealing with the recent deaths of his own parents while making it. It wouldn’t be a Tim Burton movie without a witch or a werewolf and larger-than-life characters, but essentially it’s a movie with a huge heart (maybe the biggest of all his movies), about the love of a father and a son and the power of storytelling.
When it was announced that Tim Burton was going to take on the first Batman feature film since the campy 1966 version based on the TV show, we knew we were going to see a new big-screen Batman. Released in 1989, it would be darker, more along the lines of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic series and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Burton got the job based primarily on the success of Beetlejuice, but the hiring of that film’s title character, Michael Keaton, as this film’s lead, baffled many people. Keaton, after all, was known as a comic actor, not a dark and serious superhero type.
But Keaton pulled it off and was easily the best of the three actors who played the role in what became a four-film series. Burton created a gorgeously gloomy Gotham City and he coaxed a somewhat reluctant Jack Nicholson into a tour-de-force performance as the Joker. Ultimately, Batman proved for the first time in more than a decade that superhero movies could be really good, becoming a massive blockbuster hit.
Burton was handed a relatively small budget, but he made the grotesquely amusing special effects work with freaky prosthetics and stop-motion animation. It was quite unlike anything else, planting Burton on the map in a big way, creating a truly iconic character in Betelgeuse, becoming the 10th highest grossing film of the year, and spawning a Saturday morning cartoon. It won an Oscar for Best Makeup and, nearly 30 years later, Burton, Keaton and co-star Winona Ryder are said to be reuniting for a sequel.
When Ed Wood debuted in 1994, it was a head-scratcher for many Tim Burton fans. Everything he’d done to that point was dark, with dark humor, fantastical characters and often colorful, surreal settings. And here was a black and white biopic about a 1950s B-movie director. So it was definitely unexpected, and that led to a massive failure at the box office. But it also most definitely worked as a fantastic film that celebrated friendship, outsiders and the creative spirit, which was echoed off-screen by Disney granting Burton complete creative control and Burton not taking a salary.
Despite all of the Tim Burton tropes that are absent from this production, Ed Wood still feels like a Tim Burton movie. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Wood is just weird and blindly optimistic enough, celebrating a man who was largely mocked during his life. Martin Landau’s portrayal of legendary horror movie actor Bela Lugosi, which won him the Supporting Actor Oscar, was masterful, although evidently not entirely accurate to Lugosi himself. While some critics derided the film for not being “Burton” enough, what Burton did here is simply craft a beautiful film, which still celebrated that classic Burton outsider character. It didn’t need any gimmicks.
With the blockbuster that was Batman out of the way, Burton turned to a story much more typical of his vision in 1990 with his masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands. It sprung from an original Burton idea, inspired by his own loneliness, and he injected just the right doses of weirdness, dark humor, heart, conflict and even a little dash of horror.
Edward himself is a starkly unique and tragic character, as brilliantly portrayed by Johnny Depp in his first Burton film. He’s the classic outsider who just wants to fit in – a common theme in Burton’s works. But, since he’s not really human, has crazy Robert Smith hair, and, of course, has giant blades for fingers, the odds of him fitting in are stacked against him. You can’t help but root for him, especially if you’ve ever felt like an outsider yourself.
How do you rank Tim Burton's movies? Think Mars Attacks! deserves better? Is Batman Returns better than Batman? Let us know how you feel in the comments!