‘Dumbo’ is bad, but an elephant never forgets that Tim Burton was good once: Ranking the director’s best, worst

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t might be stating a stereotype, but Tim Burton is an anomaly. An artist who initially specialized stories about eccentrics and pariahs, the filmmaker has grown into a studio mainstay whose acceptance came with being showered in money. Though the creative spark he once had was likely vanquished by complacency long ago, he still can’t help but put his own cosmetic imprint on whatever he touches. His reputation has become a victim of his sameyness, yet there are few filmmakers that have managed a body of work containing disparities in quality that stretch beyond space and time. Ranking his films entails touching the peaks of soul-bearing creativity and diving into dogshit laziness that stinks of self-loathing.


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19. “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)

In an asinine creative decision, Burton replaced Lewis Carroll’s daisy chain of nonsense vignettes with a generic hero’s journey that ends with its heroine sending her shipping company on a colonialist quest to Hong Kong. On top of that, Wonderland is fucking hideous — its cacophony of green screen effects could be rationalized as audacious if there were an iota of inspiration behind it. Burton never recovered from this.


18. “Dark Shadows” (2012)

A real stinker, Burton’s revamp of the 1960s gothic soap opera of the same name angles more toward comedy than its originator. Yet the film can’t come up with a single gag outside of its one-joke premise: a vampire in Nixon-era America. The fish-out-of-water comedy flounders because the entire movie is the same shade of dead-mouse-gray as Johnny Depp’s pale skin. This would be an obvious nadir in his career if it didn’t already include an eye-stabbing nightmare.


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17. “Planet of the Apes” (2001)

Putting aside Rick Baker’s stupendous makeup work, this is the first of many catastrophes for Burton. It’s an anonymous work crippled by a seismically uninvolved lead performance by Mark Wahlberg — name an actor less fit for Burton’s penchant for outsiders. When asked whether he would want to do a sequel, Burton said, “I’d rather jump out a window.”

At least the movie’s MVP Paul Giamatti had a pretty good pitch: “I think it’d be great to have apes driving cars, smoking cigars. Wearing glasses, sitting in a boardroom, stuff like that.”


16. “Big Eyes” (2014)

The aimlessness of late-career Burton and the awards-courting middlebrow of the Weinstein Company biopics made for an unfathomably cursed combination. In this biopic of the painter Margaret Keane, whose incredibly commercial work was sold under her husband’s name and largely criticized as tacky, all the filmmaker can come up with is toothless art culture satire, failing to scrape together any interiority for this woman he clearly sees as a kindred spirit.


15. “Corpse Bride” (2005)

After Burton punted directorial duties to Henry Selick on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (a masterpiece), it seemed inevitable that he would return to stop-motion animation at some point. Yet the result is a trifle, anchored by a pathetically indifferent protagonist who simply follows the whims of everyone around him. Honestly, does anybody care if he marries the corpse lady or not? Danny Elfman also wastes his second crack at an animated musical with original songs that are so barren of effort they may as well have been scribbled on a napkin in a diner.


14. “Frankenweenie” (2012)

Marginally more entertaining than “Corpse Bride,” Burton’s other attempt at stop-motion turns out to be a bigger bummer only because it has the director returning to an old stomping ground. With this remake of the 1980s short film that originally put him on the map, Burton can’t get 80 minutes out of a whiz kid reviving his dead dog and proceeds to throw arbitrary filler in the mix to fill up time. It’s a sad, thematically incoherent mediocrity with failures that put the director’s slow slip into myopia into sharp focus.


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13. “Dumbo” (2019)

The director’s latest brings him back into the fold of Disney and is thankfully a much more workmanlike entry than “Alice.” Tempering his decorative tics, it’s more of a soulless revamping of intellectual property than anything else. Burton seems to bring in some of his staple players such as Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton just to keep himself interested in the project.

 

 


12. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016)

Burton adapting a hit young adult book series didn’t alleviate his current ailments of narrative constipation and wooden protagonists. It did, however, give him opportunities for visual ingenuity, particularly in regard to the mild-mannered youngster’s comparatively benign superpowers such as floating and invisibility. Eva Green shines as the titular guardian; shame she ducks out of the story with 40 minutes to go.

 


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11. “Sleepy Hollow” (1999)

Gorgeous and gory, yet decidedly minor. It only seems right that Burton would make a slasher film at some point, and the near monochromatic look he conjures for this instills a chilled eeriness sporadically interrupted by snappy decapitations. But there’s room for more pizzazz. Aside from the craft, there’s no sense of enthusiasm for this particular story — a timeless piece of American self-mythologizing about the nation’s chronic superstition. It’s mostly an opportunity for cool kills, which does make for an easy watch.

 


10. “Big Fish” (2003)

At the time, this was seen as Burton’s shift into more dramatic territory. And the film is good, though the father-son relationship at the center can’t quite execute the blunt-force drama that it’s gunning for. Its Hail Mary finale is a miracle though, and its carousel of fanciful exaggerations of a life lived is quite charming. Bloated and belabored as it is, this should’ve marked the start of something new for Burton; instead, it stands as an oddity in his career.


9. “Batman” (1989)

The progenitor of the modern superhero movie, Burton’s adaptation of DC Comics’ caped crusader is a crackpot spectacle in comparison to the interconnecting content architectures the genre has become. Keaton remains the best actor in the role, playing Bruce Wayne as a psychopath in arrested development who needs to play dress-up to cope with his trauma. And his Gotham City is a technically resplendent metropolis of staggering skyscrapers and bootlegging gangsters. The script is a disjointed mess, but that’s hardly a problem when Jack Nicholson is dancing to original Prince songs.


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8. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005)

Though not up to the 1971 original, Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved novel remains more loyal to the book’s prickly edges. What’s particularly cunning is Burton and Depp’s indifference to endearing Willy Wonka to audiences, instead conceiving the character as an antisocial, solipsistic sad sack who only likes children as cannon fodder to dunk on. Most of the late-breaking dramatic swings don’t work, but as a pure comedy, it’s endearingly bizarre. Elfman’s Oompa-Loompa songs are hellzapoppin’ madness.

 

 


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7. “Batman Returns” (1992)

After the smashing success of the original “Batman” came something far stranger. Featuring two titanic supervillain performances in Danny DeVito’s horndog Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s literal take on Catwoman, Batman becomes a supporting player in his own movie, another friendless misfit lonely during the holiday season. Completely erratic, the tragedy is so preposterous and provocative that it even caused public uproar at the time of its release. The fact that any flagship property could look and behave like this is utterly astonishing.


6. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)

An alchemical concoction of gothic horror, Sunday newspaper funnies and Technicolor melodrama, Burton’s mishmash of pastiche never felt more assured than here: the tall tale of a Frankenstein’s monster exploited, for labor and turn-ons, by an insular suburban community. The insistent framing of the story as a bedtime fable proves to be limiting at times, but it’s fittingly delicate in its execution and deeply felt.


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5. “Mars Attacks!” (1996)

Released just months after the rah-rah, grandiose “Independence Day,” Burton’s alien invasion seems to be its diverting counter. A laugh-a-minute mockery of humanity collectively shitting themselves during the end of days, the film is loaded with a grabbag of stars such as Pam Grier, Tom Jones and Martin Short lining up to be unceremoniously slaughtered like ants under a magnifying glass. Criticized upon release for being an insincere poke at chintzy science-fiction movies of the Atomic Age, “Mars Attacks!” has aged into its own campy time capsule for its own era. Not at all a cohesive movie, but a ferocious and hysterical one.


4. “Ed Wood” (1994)

There’s something to be said about how Burton’s biggest flop is also his most personal. This optimistic biopic about an infamously terrible filmmaker is a largely plotless, almost purgatorial examination of economic conditions challenging unflappable ambition. Its kooky sense of humor and sumptuous photography keep one foot outside of reality, which only further emphasizes the romanticism and decency of its storytelling. Completely fictional, Wood’s freak encounter with Orson Welles is an otherworldly climax that inspires awe. Movies about movie-making are usually some of the most irritating, self-congratulatory things; this is one of the best of them.


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3. “Beetlejuice” (1988)

Burton’s sophomore effort is his most essential: delectably misanthropic, viciously witty and positively brimming with creepy-crawlies. It is a film of perfect proportions that moves with the thunder and anarchic velocity of a stampeding Ferris wheel. Michael Keaton’s eponymous “ghost with the most” gets to steal the show, but Catherine O’Hara’s pantheon-tier turn as a manic, suburb-hating matriarch is a veritable masterclass on the bug-eyed stare, littered with all the right notes of familial loathing. “Kids! You know I love ‘em!”


2. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

Before he had his career up and running, Burton had consulted with Stephen Sondheim on the prospect of adapting the composer’s stage musical. Finally getting around to the task two decades later, his finely manicured melancholy reaches peak fetishism here (evidenced by casting his wife and best friend in the lead roles) and collides with the unmitigated agony of Sondheim’s material to create potent, doom-laden iconography. Burton channels the films of Hammer Horror, blanketing the grime of Victorian London in soul-sucking grays and only offering the crimson sheen of blood splatter and roaring fire as retribution.


1. “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1995)

Breakfast machine.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].