Latest vs. Greatest looks at directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters and composers to assess the state of their career as it stands. We’ll look back at the latest 10 movies the artist has done, rate them and then average them out to see where they stand today. We’ll also rank their 10 greatest movies and give them the same treatment to compare what they have been doing to their very best work. (A quick side-note: if an artist is/has been a regular on a TV show we’ll also grade the seasons individually; artists need 10 projects to qualify).
It’s not hard to imagine that TIm Burton got his start as an animator when you consider the characters and design world of his film resume. It is hard to picture him as an animator working for Disney trying to work in the “Disney-style”. That didn’t last too long (to everyone’s benefit, I think) and Burton began making films instead of drawing them. He began his career with a series of shorts (the most famous of which being the live-action Frankenweenie he would one day revisit as an animated feature) before making his feature film debut with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.
I grew up watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse (until Paul Reubens got himself exiled from show business for his behavior, which is kind of routine, but he let a lot of kids down so I’ve never quite forgiven him for that). There was just really nothing like it. It was learning in an environment of complete and utter insanity. This appealed to me since I like to learn and am completely and utterly insane. What has never appealed to me was the Pee Wee character outside of the confines of the show. I find it annoying, so I don’t hold any great fondness for his big-screen adventure, but many do and Burton immediately established the off-beat type of film that appealed to him and would define his career.
I’ve always imagined Beetlejuice to be Burton’s answer to “What if someone played Bloody Mary and got a used car salesman instead?” Yeah, that’s one of those observations that’s just me, but-again-Beetlejuice isn’t, for me, one of Burton’s greatest achievements. I think it is an important film in his development as a director and in his stylistic inclinations, but I think without Michael Keaton’s hurricane of a performance, this is just an average film. By the way, DO NOT MAKE A SEQUEL TO THIS, BURTON! This is one of those movies like Blade Runner that has had sequel talk buzzing around it for almost a decade, and it’s not a good idea. Especially at the point where Burton is now, and obviously we’ll talk more about that, going back to the 1980’s is not what he should be doing.
It’s with just those two films under his belt, that Burton was given the job of making the first serious Batman movie of the modern age; the first superhero movie since the dwindling of the Superman/Reeve era. It’s easy to dismiss the earlier Batman films now that Nolan has laid down a perfect Dark Knight, but for a very long time, Burton’s Batman was the best super hero film ever made. He got so much of the atmosphere and tone of Gotham and Batman correct, taking the dark and gritty approach, which was very fresh then. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was only 3 years old. Most people still thought of the sixties TV show when you said “Batman”. Burton helped bring the character back to its roots. He made an extremely controversial casting choice with Michael Keaton, which-I think-paid off enormously.
He got one of the greatest actors of all time to turn in one of his greatest performances as Jack Nicholson’s Joker became the standard to which all comic book villains would aspire until Heath Ledger somehow managed to top it 25 years later. His Batman isn’t perfect. His disrespect for the character of Commissioner Gordon is unforgivable. Having the Joker responsible for Bruce’s parents deaths. Giving Batman a girlfriend, as if Batman needs a love interest. Dating the film with Prince’s music so that it remains a 1980’s film instead of a timeless classic. These are all missteps, but this was only his third film and the good FAR outweighs the bad. Burton’s contributions to the overall mythos of Batman are undeniable and overall very positive.
In-between Batman and its sequel, Burton made his first masterpiece in his first collaboration of many with Johnny Depp: Edward Scissorhands. Here, Burton took his off-beat quirkiness, his innate darkness, his odd sense of humor and his flair for the tragic and combined them into a modern fairy tale so heartbreaking that it affects me emotionally to even dwell on it. I’m not terribly emotional, either, so that’s saying quite a bit. It’s a perfect film. It’s also in this film where Danny Elfman perfected Burton’s movie score presence. There’s a musical weight in Burton’s films, unfortunately now a little rigid, but he’d a director who knows the value of music and its impact and as Steven Spielberg has John Williams, Tim Burton has Danny Elfman and the pairing has produced some wonderful scores. Of those, I think this is best representation of the best era of their work.
Now one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, Burton returned to Gotham City in 1992 for Batman Returns. I consider Batman Returns to be half a fantastic film. Had this film just been Michelle Pfiefer’s Catwoman, I would rank it equal to if not better than 1989’s Batman. Pfiefer was glorious as Catwoman, but the decision to pair her with a grotesque, mutated Penguin played by Danny DeVito (whom I’m not a fan of) ruined the film. There are certainly parts of the sequel I love, but the Penguin was a huge misstep, as was having both of them subverted by Christopher Walken at his hammiest. It would be the last trip to Gotham for both Burton and Michael Keaton and the franchise would soon suffer far worse missteps. I don’t hate Batman Returns. I just think it could have been so much more and that its flaws, unlike the flaws in the original, are not overcome by the film as a whole.
Burton reteamed with Johnny Depp twice again in the 1990’s. In 1994, he made Ed Wood, an odd biographical picture about a quirky director (Burton certainly I think finds some kinship with Wood). The film’s stolen by Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi and seems like the kind of film that would find a cult following on video, but-instead-seems more forgotten with each passing year.
Depp and Burton also made 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, which seems the perfect picture for Burton. I like the film, but there’s no denying it has problems and in the picture you see the first indications that Burton and Depp are beginning to bring out each other’s weak spots instead of enforcing their strengths.
My favorite picture that Burton directed in the 1990’s was based on a series of trading cards depicting a crazy Martian invasion called Mars Attacks! The closest thing Burton has made to a straight-up comedy, Mars is a star-studded romp of craziness. The film also marked the reteaming of Burton with Batman star Jack Nicholson, who turns in one of his career comedic performances with his turn as the President of the United States. THIS is a film that has developed a cult following on video and I think is Burton’s most underappreciated film.
Though he did not direct it, I’ve decided to include The Nightmare Before Christmas in Burton’s filmography as if he did. This is to take nothing from the film’s actual director, Henry Selznick, but the film’s official title is Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I feel like he transcends merely being a producer on the film to the point where this should be included with his other works. This is Burton’s second masterpiece and one of my favorite films of all time. It’s a demonstration of his demented imagination channeled in just the right style into just the right story. Elfman not only writes a miraculous score, but timeless songs for characters that have become as popular as any that Disney has in their stable. This is kind of amusing because Disney was so freaked out by the final product of NBC that they released it under their Touchstone label. Now, Disneyland at Halloween and Christmas is a Jack Skellington wonderland. I love this film beyond words and there is a very large Skellington decal on the back windshield of my car.
In 2001, Burton tried to reboot the Planet of the Apes series with Mark Wahlberg taking the central stage and it’s a mess. I’m one of the few who didn’t seem to like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it’s twice the movie that Burton’s misstep is. It is notable most, perhaps for having one of the most controversial and worst endings of any film I’ve ever seen, so you might check it out just for that experience.
Burton’s next film, though, will forever endear him to me. It is, I think, the film least “like him” and also perhaps because of that effort to stretch, his best. On a sentimental note, it’s also the film I took my wife to on our first date. Big Fish contains many Burtonian tropes, but they’re subtle and woven into a greater tapestry of a story about stories. How the stories we tell with our lives and the stories we retell about those lives are perhaps equally valuable and real. That myth and magic live amongst the mundane. That everyone’s life can be extraordinary if viewed through the correct goggles. It’s also about fathers and sons and how they struggle to understand one another; death and life; love and loss. It’s a deeply touching, deeply profound, deeply wise, perfectly made motion picture. I’m so very glad that it’s such a landmark in my life because it became a part of my story. Burton showed me something with this that I did not think him capable of: restraint. Utter subservience to the story to the benefit of the film (the lack of which has been his Achilles’ heel his entire career). I don’t know why this wasn’t lauded the way it should have been, but in my personal rankings, it’s one of my 15 favorite films of all-time.
Unfortunately, the film is followed by the polar opposite of everything Big Fish is: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This film, everything about it, makes me so mad and disgusted with Burton that I’ve chosen to just move on. Maybe I’ll feel up to a good and healthy rant next time when we profile Johnny Depp.
After a lesser return to stop-motion animation in The Corpse Bride that was imaginative but utterly forgettable, Burton and Depp (who by now have made eight films together) took on possibly the darkest musical in existence: Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I don’t like musicals and I think the entire premise of this film is grotesquely dumb…but I also think it’s as well made as I can imagine a film adaptation of this particular musical being. It’s worth bringing up here that Burton’s romantic partner, Helena Bonham Carter, who has been in nearly as many films of his as Depp, steals Todd and I think perhaps should have won Supporting Actress for the turn.
Next traveling to Wonderland, Burton had by this point, alienated me so much that I only went to view the film because I had nothing else to do that particular weekend. I expected to hate everything about it, but was shocked to find myself loving it. Depp was playing The Mad Hatter as an addled Scotsman, but whatever. I really was loving the film until 10 minutes before the end when my review of it dropped two whole points in a matter of seconds. It’s a perfect demonstration of why Burton and Depp should never work together again. They are no longer even capable of telling good ideas from bad and they bring out the worst impulses in both their styles. I will just use one word to describe the reason for the vitriol. Futterwacken. Enough said (though I use it as a substitute swear word so perhaps it’s not a total loss).
The last two films Burton made were in 2012 when he released Dark Shadows (Depp….aaaaaaaagain) and a feature length animated version of Frankenweenie. I found Dark Shadows boring and a pale imitation of Burton’s best works and Frankenweenie cute but unnecessary since it added nothing the short already brought to the table. In other words, I think they were two movies Burton wasted his time making.
I know I sound very harsh on him in spots and he deserves it, because Tim Burton can be one of the best directors in Hollywood when he’s not taken down by his own demons of laziness (there’s no other word for it) and self-repetition. He’s given us fantastic movies, but he’s wasted his time or botched so many chances to give us more that I believe he now stands at a critical juncture in his career. The next few years will tell us if Burton is capable of snapping back into the man who delivered films like Big Fish, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. If it doesn’t happen soon; very soon, I believe he’ll lock himself in this pattern for the rest of his career.
Let’s check out Burton’s last 10 film’s and get his Latest score:
BURTON’S LATEST TEN:
1. Dark Shadows (2012)…………………….5.75
2. Frankenweenie (2012)………………….7.00
3. Alice in Wonderland (2010)………..7.75
4. Sweeney Todd (2007)……………………8.00
5. The Corpse Bride (2005)……………..6.50
6. Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory (2005)……………….0.50
7. Big Fish (2003)………………………………..10.00
8. Planet of the Apes (2001)……………5.00
9. Sleepy Hollow (1999)…………………….7.25
10. Mars Attacks! (1996)………………….8.50
BURTON’S CURRENT AVERAGE: 6.625
That Burton’s current average stays above the positive line is due completely to Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cancelling each other out. Without the latter, Burton’s score would be with the elite directors today; without the former, it would be the lowest we’ve seen thus far. Now let’s look at his career score:
BURTON’S GREATEST TEN
1. Big Fish (2003)……………………………….10.00
2. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare …..10.00
Before Christmas (1993)
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)……….10.00
4. Batman (1989)………………………………….9.25
5. Mars Attacks! (1996)………………………8.50
6. Beetlejuice (1988)……………………………8.00
7. Sweeney Todd (2007)…………………….8.00
8. Alice in Wonderland (2010)…………7.75
9. Batman Returns (1992)…………………7.75
10. Sleepy Hollow (1999)…………………..7.25
BURTON’S GREATEST AVERAGE: 8.650
As I said, I think Burton stands at a critical juncture and his next film, Big Eyes, is something I’m very much looking forward to because it sounds like nothing he’s ever attempted before, which is GOOD. The synopsis reads, “A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.” It stars Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams and Krysten Ritter. I am rooting for Burton. I want to see the man’s talent explode onscreen again, because if I don’t see it soon…I think I may consign him to a group of directors who, once great, are now simply just past relevance.