The pairing of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton has been one of the most talked-about actor/director collaborations of the last 25 years. However, with Burton’s latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opening this week, we take a look back at the famously macabre director’s adventures without his favorite muse.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Tim Burton kicked off his directorial career with this highly eccentric road-trip movie featuring Paul Reubens’s iconic man-child, Pee-wee Herman. After his beloved red bicycle is stolen by his jealous rival, Francis (Mark Holton), Pee-wee is given a tip from a shady fortune-teller that sends him on an epic journey to the Alamo where his bike supposedly waits (“in the basement!”). The oddball humor of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the kind you either resonate with or you don’t — there isn’t much in between. In my case, this movie is hilarious. It’s silly to an extreme, good-hearted and slyly self-aware. But beyond those basic descriptors, it’s difficult to accurately characterize the appeal of the film or single out whom it may be best suited for. How can one possibly relate the whimsical quality of Pee-wee’s breakfast mechanism? The amazingness of Amazing Larry? The glory and the horror that is Large Marge? Fans of Burton’s more playfully spooky endeavors are in for something very different here as the film takes an openness toward juvenile frivolity to truly love Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
— Byron Bixler
Mangled corpses. Shrunken heads. Decapitations. A double-mouthed sandworm that roams an endless purgatory, devouring anything that moves. Only the ’80s could have produced a mainstream comedy (supposedly aimed at families) as weird and twisted as this. To a certain extent, death is still something of a taboo in Western culture (mainly when it comes to light-hearted entertainment for kids). However, being the lifelong lover of the macabre that he is, Tim Burton sees this subject matter as a playground for some gnarly fun. Providing an unusual take on the afterlife and the rules of the dead that remain on Earth, Beetlejuice is a film that bridges the gap between the sunny, absurdly humorous nature of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the more deliberately morbid material that defines Burton’s later work. Elaborately surreal set design and a detailed story world mix with buffoonish caricatures and broad humor to create an unforgettably offbeat aesthetic. The character of Betelgeuse himself is actually the most polarizing element of the movie for me. Michael Keaton’s charismatic portrayal of the grotesque, leering antagonist is admirable, but his appearances repeatedly bring all story momentum to a halt as the screen is suddenly hijacked by this manic, unpleasant character for several minutes of mugging and pop-culture references (which set a trend for this type of wild-card character that continued well into the ’90s). While it’s tonally consistent, the story isn’t always too coherent. Whatever investment we might have had in the deceased central couple’s plight is overwhelmed by almost nonstop kooky antics. At the same time, the sheer creativity of the film is what ultimately makes it such an enjoyable experience.
— Byron Bixler
Without a doubt, Tim Burton’s Batman laid the foundation for modern superhero cinema. Michael Keaton reintroduces the character as a gritty vigilante out to subdue the psychopaths of Gotham. The film begins at a time when “The Batman” is nothing more than an urban legend to the city’s police and criminals alike. What follows from this setup is a story that focuses on showing how Batman and the Joker — through their actions and immoral philosophies — are almost parallel figures. Both of them are portrayed as outlaws operating on the outskirts of society, working on their own terms and seeking out their own personal vendettas without any regard for the law. But instead of condemning both, Gotham’s citizens willingly entrust their city’s well-being to the hands of the Batman — despite not even knowing his real identity. The grim setting of the film set the tone for future Batman blockbusters, TV shows and other forms of entertainment. Without Burton, the Batman that is idolized today would be drastically different from what we’ve come to know and love.
— Erica Noboa
Batman Returns (1992)
Coming off a huge success with Batman, Tim Burton returns with a darker and eerier sequel. Batman Returns begins with the villainous Penguin’s origin story: Abandoned as a baby due to his physical deformities, he is later found by a gang of penguins and raised as one of their own. Burton’s love for social outcasts sets the groundwork for this brooding film, but he also shows off his trademark visual style, something his first Batman film lacked. Additionally, Burton takes our hero into even more gruesome territory. The Batman of this film is more prone to committing demented acts of violence, such as setting a third-rate criminal on fire. After the entertaining but contained first installment, Burton breaks any boundaries set by the prequel and the PG-13 rating, creating an action-packed, slightly disturbing installment in the superhero genre.
— Erica Noboa
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Mars Attacks! is one of Tim Burton’s lesser-known films. Coincidently coming out just five months after Independence Day, the film is based on a popular trading card series and acts as a spoof of 1950s Ed Wood-style sci-fi movies and ’70s disaster films. Boasting a surprisingly strong cast — including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Natalie Portman, Michael J. Fox and many others — you may think this film is one of those forgotten gems. But it’s not. There are many problems with this movie, the least of which involving the CGI and special effects, which don’t hold up today. All of the aliens look like oil-covered walking brains with eyeballs. And while most of the cast does the best they can with the material they’re given, most of the acting is campy and overdone.
But the film’s biggest problem concerns the script. There are many storylines and characters that are unnecessary. Cutting these things would give more time to develop the one-dimensional protagonists we’re stuck with. And yes, it is a spoof, but that’s not an excuse for bad writing. Additionally, there are numerous logical errors and unanswered questions. For example: Shouldn’t world leaders be meeting more in this situation? There are a couple mentions of officials from other countries, but if aliens came to Earth and attacked, I would think it would be an international issue. Why after a devastating attack on Congress would security let a strange woman into the White House without searching her? Why is she able to simply walk right into the president’s bedroom without any trouble? Shouldn’t there be more security? Eventually the characters find out that music kills the aliens (a discovery not unlike the “water reveal” in Signs). Is it ever explained why it kills them? No. They never tell you why the aliens are attacking in the first place. These are just a few of the questions this movie fails to address. In the end, Burton’s Mars Attacks! is an unfunny, poorly written spoof that is best left the way it is: forgotten.
— Stephanie Aris
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Hey, remember Planet of the Apes, the 1968 critically acclaimed film that still holds up today? You know what it really needed? A remake. Sadly for us, this is exactly what Tim Burton must have been thinking when he decided to direct a new version of Franklin J. Schaffner’s sci-fi classic. However, when you look past the name, basic premise and some oddly repurposed dialogue, there are very few similarities between the original and the remake. In the original, there are only a handful of characters, but each of them are interesting and well-developed. Burton’s remake, on the other hand, adds a host of new characters, all underwritten. We don’t care about any of them, even Mark Wahlberg’s Leo Davidson, the supposed main character. The remake also trades in the original’s tension and intrigue for a thin plot and clunky action sequences. The film tries to end on a big, surprising twist in an effort to one-up the original’s ending, but it just ends up not making any sense. Worst of all, the film changes — or fails to understand — the point of the original movie. Human war and self-destruction caused the present circumstances of this story; it was our own fault that the world came to this. However, Burton’s film ditches this message and opts for the far less introspective, “Can’t we all just get along?” This forced sentiment is especially baffling because the movie fails to distinguish the differences driving humans and apes apart. Do yourself a favor and skip this anchor dragging down Burton’s filmography and watch the original instead.
— Stephanie Aris
Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish was Tim Burton’s first film with now-frequent collaborator, screenwriter John August. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, the story concerns Edward Bloom, a proud Southern adventurer, who is now old and sick. His son, Will, is more practical and grown-up. Will wants the truth: He wants to know who his father really is, but he’s pretty sure he already knows. Edward Bloom is not heroic or aspirational, he’s a coward and a braggart who uses his colorful imagination as an escape from the challenge of forming a genuine relationship with his son. The film’s charming costumes and visually pleasing locations paint an idealistic, whimsical picture of small-town living in the American South. The scope of the narrative is epic and mythic, yet undeniably personal and human. Often overlooked in Burton’s canon, Big Fish is unique in its role as a film within a specific cult niche — with an already cult fandom director (perhaps the following was spurred by its occasional availability on Netflix or its short-lived Broadway musical adaptation). It’s less Burton’s typical Hot Topic-lite style and more bubble-gum Southern gothic.
— Jessica Acosta
Frankenweenie pays homage to the classic monster genre and simultaneously warms its viewers’ hearts with a story about the love between a child and his dog. A young Victor Frankenstein-esque character loses his beloved pet, Sparky, in a tragic accident. The young genius is unable to cope with the loss, so he decides to bring his furry friend back to life. The attempt is successful, and when the corpse is reanimated, Sparky returns just as spunky as ever. Tim Burton originally partnered with Disney in 1984 to direct this story as a black-and-white short, but nearly 30 years later, he revisited the concept for a feature-length, stop-motion animated film. Burton’s take on the classic tale humanizes the protagonist in a way that’s genuinely endearing. For once, Frankenstein isn’t portrayed simply as a mad genius: He’s just a boy who wants his best friend back. While the story undoubtedly includes relatively frightening scenes such as a little dog being hit by a car and resurrected animal corpses invading the town, Frankenweenie is a great movie for families to enjoy.
— Erica Noboa
Big Eyes (2014)
Big Eyes follows the story of the haunting paintings often misattributed to Walter Keane during the 1960s. There are no fantastical elements here, as anything remotely scary is rooted in Walter’s manipulation and abuse of his wife, Susan, the true artist. The uncanny aspect of the paintings — which feature children with alien-like, oversized doe eyes — is paralleled by the hazy period glamour of seedy, nouveau riche Californian artistic elite. Surely, this is an atypical Tim Burton film. Big Eyes could certainly be placed in the category of delightfully unabashed award-season bait, but there’s nothing insincere about Amy Adams’ intense leading performance. The film was written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have carved out a niche for themselves writing biopics for unlikely figures. Some of these projects include collaborating with Burton on Ed Wood and, most recently, penning the Emmy-winning miniseries American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson.
— Jessica Acosta