The 18 Films of Tim Burton: Ranked from Worst to Best
Some filmmakers are talented and fortunate enough to develop an audience. Tim Burton, however, developed a whole culture. After an early animation career working on Disney films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, the Burbank native began making live-action and animated shorts, before ultimately finding great success as the director of the hit films Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and the 1989 version of Batman, which has over the past three decades become one of the most influential motion pictures in history, setting the stage for the eventual superhero revolution in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities, distinctive visual style and penchant for eery outsiders inspired a cult following that eventually went mainstream. The works of Tim Burton are now mass marketed to within an inch of their metaphoric lives, populating theme parks and trendy stores, and giving multiple generations of children useful avatars for their own, individual weirdness.
Tim Burton’s latest movie, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is yet another intriguing entry into the filmography of a director with many successes, several failures, and an undeniable artistic through-line that makes his whole body of work uniquely appealing. Let’s take a look back at all of the impressive – and sometimes flawed – feature films directed by Tim Burton, and see how Miss Peregrine holds up against his cherished classics and notorious misfires!
18. THE CORPSE BRIDE (2005)
The Corpse Bride may not be Tim Burton’s most notorious misfire, but if you’re watching it again, you will discover that it’s his only boring film. The concept is intriguing – a mild-mannered man rehearses his wedding vows in a graveyard and accidentally marries a charming corpse – but the drab imagery, forgettable songs (with lyrics that are often difficult to understand), and the unfortunate choice to make both of our hero’s love interests likable characters who are horrifically abused by the the whole situation, makes watching The Corpse Bride a damn near deadly experience.
17. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)
Even in his worst movies Tim Burton’s distinctive artistic sensibilities usually shine through. But never have they seemed more lost in corporate pandering than in his version of Alice in Wonderland, which transforms Lewis Carroll’s wry and stylish fantasy into a gormless action/adventure. Burton’s typically beautiful imagery gets washed away in a sludge of CGI, the characters (with the exception of Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, who ham it up like a giddy maniacs) are forgettable wacky archetypes, and of course it all boils down to a big murderous battle between tons of marketable action figures.
16. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)
In many respects, Tim Burton’s interpretation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is closer to the spirit of Roald Dahl’s original novel than the earlier, more satirical 1971 movie. Even Johnny Depp’s interpretation of chocolatier Willy Wonka as a reclusive, childlike Michael Jackson caricature makes a certain amount of sense. But there’s something missing from Tim Burton’s version, a sense of wonder that has been replaced with loud noises, garish colors, and weirdness for its own sake. This particular adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not be quite as bad as its reputation, but it’s still pretty bad.
15. PLANET OF THE APES (2001)
Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes actually comes pretty close to being a good movie if you look at it the right way. It wasn’t the action movie audiences expected, but rather a weird exploration of cyclical dehumanization told through the clunky motifs of 1950s sci-fi allegories. The makeup effects are phenomenal, the production and costume design are impressive, and several of the actors – particularly Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter – give first rate performances. But the film is trapped between big science fiction ideas and low, blockbuster brouhaha, and the human leads are all rock-headed. Overall, the film simply never finds its footing. And that “twist” ending is still as dumb as hell.
14. MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
Tim Burton has always been attracted to the dark side of the human imagination, but usually, he finds something lovable amidst that all that unpleasantness. His ambitious sci-fi farce Mars Attacks is the most mean-spirited entry in the director’s filmography, a cynical view of humanity as dunderheaded warmongers and shallow fodder, almost all of us destined to be wiped off the face of the Earth by vicious alien sprites, like so much feces off of the bottom of a shoe. If you can get on that despicable wavelength Mars Attacks is an enjoyably angry movie, but if you actually want something (anything) human and sympathetic to latch onto, this adaptation of the iconic playing card series will leave you wanting.
13. DARK SHADOWS (2012)
Tim Burton’s adaptation of the long-running, eery soap opera Dark Shadows is perhaps his most misinterpreted film, a kooky ode to daytime television that had the misfortune of being produced for audiences who wouldn’t know As the World Turns from Oprah. Marketed as a mere fish out of water story, featuring Johnny Depp as a centuries old vampire who reawakens in the 1970s, Dark Shadows is actually a spot-on satire of over the top and off-kilter family melodramas, gothic and nostalgic alike, featuring a fun cast of characters. It’s a slight film, and still not one of Burton’s best, but this movie warrants a reevaluation from the filmmaker’s fans, who perhaps wrote it off too hastily.
12. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)
Stephen Sondheim’s grand guignol musical about a barber who murders his customers so his downstairs neighbor can turn them into pies is lavishly adapted to the screen by Tim Burton, whose trademark flourishes fill every single frame. And yet the rigidity of Sondheim’s opera appears to have somewhat limited Burton as a storyteller, forcing him to work within strict narrative confines and give up on many of the oddball digressions that usually make his filmmaking so terribly interesting in the first place. Sweeney Todd is a handsome production but a straightforward one, especially by Burton’s standards, and ultimately it doesn’t stand out against his other, more imaginative motion pictures.
11. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN (2016)
Tim Burton’s first stab at the YA fantasy genre (unless Alice in Wonderland counts, but let’s be polite and say it doesn’t) is in some respects a typical affair, in which a teenager discovers a secret world of superpowered kids who need protection from monsters. But underscoring the conventional elements of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are a slew of thoughtful allegories for the refugee crisis of the 1930s and 1940s (when a large part of the film is set), imported into the present day, when a younger generation has to decide how responsible they are going to be for the care of other, unusual peoples. Miss Peregrine may be Burton’s most socially conscious film, and if the plot had been a little less formulaic, that ambitiousness might have made it one of his best.
10. FRANKENWEENIE (2012)
Adapting his original live-action short film Frankenweenie, about a young boy who brings his recently deceased dog back to life, could have been a disaster for Tim Burton. But the smartly written screenplay for the feature film version expands on the intimate original story in entertaining ways, creating a whole community of undead critters who challenge the townsfolk’s paranoid fears about modern science. Creepy without turning grim, and fun without losing sight of the serious issues it raises, Frankenweenie is a ghoulish delight.
9. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
Tim Burton’s first feature film is still his silliest, a madcap cross-country adventure starring the childlike Paul Reubens as an inventive weirdo who will stop at nothing to get his stolen bicycle back. The innocent premise spins out into wacky directions, giving Burton the opportunity to film hilarious dance routines, terrifying ghosts and a climactic chase for the ages. Odd and wonderful, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is just as fun as ever.
8. SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999)
A rather ingenious reinterpretation of the classic Washington Irving tale, Sleepy Hollow stars Johnny Depp as a cowardly detective investigating a series of beheadings in the eery title town. Burton luxuriates in spectacular production design inspired by the classic Hammer horror canon, and that powerful motif is anchored by a clever premise and ripping action sequences. It doesn’t amount to much more than a good time and a sincere homage, and the plot is too complicated by half, but Sleepy Hollow is nevertheless one of Tim Burton’s most enjoyable films.
7. BIG FISH (2003)
Tim Burton has always been a rather sensitive filmmaker, extending his hands to every dreamer and outsider in the audience. But with Big Fish he achieved a nearly universal sentimentality, telling the story of a dying father whose many unbelievable stories may be lies, or may be reality, but either way reveal wondrous things about his life. The truth is inconsequential, the stories matter, and so do our connections with those who love us. Big Fish is a bizarre film, and perhaps its hodgepodge of weird tales isn’t always successful, but in the end, it is practically guaranteed to make you cry.
6. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Although Tim Burton is well known for his ethereal adaptations of well-known stories and characters, the original creations are perhaps his greatest legacy, and Edward Scissorhands is one of the most bizarre and distinctive. The artificial young man with razors for hands, keeping him forever at arm’s length from a world that might accept him (and might one day come with torches and pitchforks), is probably Burton’s most fragile and haunted protagonist, a meaningful stand-in for the many wallflowers to whom the filmmaker’s stories have meant so much, for so very long. A potent modern fairy tale, and a kitschy throwback to a strange suburban lifestyle that may only have existed in the minds of the alienated.
5. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Some Batman fans still balk at elements of Tim Burton’s second superhero film, especially the army of rocket penguins, but all those goofy moments are just a clever way to make his most disturbing story more digestible. With Batman Returns, Burton examines the warped duality that makes people live multiple lives, with more complexity and psychological depth than any other superhero movie to date. Every character is a mirror image of themselves, and of all the others, creating a funhouse effect in which everyone falls prey to the same delusion: that there’s nothing wrong with them, even though they are obviously all cracked and damaged.
4. BIG EYES (2014)
Tim Burton began his career as an iconoclastic artist, whose particular style was well outside the norm and, for a long time, difficult to sell. As time went on his signature works became increasingly popular and commoditized by movie studios who transformed his unique expressions into t-shirts and toys. So it’s easy to see why Big Eyes feels like one of Burton’s few, genuinely personal movies. The sad story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams, giving one of her best performances) is one in which a talented artist is marginalized and exploited by a monstrous marketer who somehow steals all of the credit, despite having no talent of their own. That he’s the artist’s husband just makes the story more appalling. Big Eyes is sad and thrilling and, in the end, hopeful. It’s Tim Burton’s most underappreciated motion picture.
3. BATMAN (1989)
It’s easy to forget, now that we live in the superhero blockbuster era, just how revolutionary Tim Burton’s first Batman movie was. Burton transformed a kitschy, lighthearted genre into a brooding and operatic experience, one that demanded to be taken seriously even when it veered wildly over the top. But even if you set the film’s historical significance aside you’ve still got a thrilling motion picture, vividly realized and dynamic in every moment, an action movie classic in every possible way.
2. BEETLEJUICE (1988)
There never was a film quite like Beetlejuice, a wildly imaginative horror-comedy that transformed the thing that terrifies all of us – death itself – into, basically, stereo instructions. The mind of Tim Burton seems laid completely bare in Beetlejuice, as we watch normal people gradually embrace their morbid side and morbid people connect with their humanity. Meanwhile, disturbing visual wonders poke in their heads from all sides. The film is one of the most remarkable examples of Tim Burton’s gothic mindset and unbridled creativity, and to top it all off, it’s one of the funniest movies ever made.
1. ED WOOD (1994)
The films of Tim Burton have long given great solace to those who like their art weird, and yet it still seems like a miracle he ever found an audience at all. Strange iconoclasts have been struggling for centuries to make their voices heard, and in telling the story of Edward D. Wood Jr. – the so-called worst filmmaker in history – Tim Burton latched onto their ultimate avatar. A perfectly cast Johnny Depp conveys the foibles of Ed Wood with exuberant pluck, refusing to be discouraged from making bonkers monster movies even when everyone around him says he should be. And his close friendship with an ailing, failing Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, who rightly won an Oscar for this performance) doesn’t just mirror Burton’s own relationship with Vincent Price in the actor’s later years, it comes to represent our own collective fondness for all the artists who made us who we are. Ed Wood proves that the so-called greats were sometimes very small, and that the smallest people are – in their own, unappreciated way – absolutely great.
Honorable Mention: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
A technicality: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t actually directed by Tim Burton, it was directed (beautifully) by Henry Selick. That distinction might keep this classic stop-motion animated musical off of the list of Tim Burton’s best movies, but everybody knows deep in their heart of hearts that, really, The Nightmare Before Christmas is the ultimate expression of the filmmaker’s sensibilities. Pervasively weird, this fabulous saga of a stifled artist wreaking havoc with his ambitious identity crisis – taking the whole Christmas spirit and transforming it into something horrible – is one of the most enchanting family films ever produced. Catchy songs, unforgettable characters, and a message of embracing our own, distinctive oddness that will always feel relevant. It may not officially be “a Tim Burton movie,” but it’s definitely the Tim Burton we all know and love.
Top Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.