Total Recall

Total Recall: Tim Burton's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Frankenweenie director.

by | October 4, 2012 | Comments

Tim Burton

For 25 years and counting, Tim Burton has been one of the most successful directors in Hollywood — and he’s done it his way, presenting filmgoers with an ever-growing list of films that celebrate the strange and macabre, from comedies (Beetlejuice) to dramas (Big Fish) to thrillers (Sleepy Hollow), with a few stops for big-budget blockbuster fare along the way (Batman, Planet of the Apes). Heck, Burton’s even proven his mettle as a director of animated fare (Corpse Bride) and served as a producer on at least one movie he didn’t direct, but you probably thought he did (The Nightmare Before Christmas). This week, Burton brings his unique style to bear — in 3-D, no less! — on a feature-length, stop-motion animated expansion of his early short film Frankenweenie, and to celebrate, we decided to take another look back at his 10 best-reviewed films. Let’s Total Recall, shall we?


10. Batman

These days, superhero films are all the rage, but in the late 1980s, the genre was at sort of a low ebb (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, anyone?). It’s understandable, in retrospect, that Warner Bros. dawdled on greenlighting Batman, leaving Burton to work through multiple drafts of Sam Hamm’s script before the success of Beetlejuice finally convinced the studio to get serious about bringing the Dark Knight back to the big screen. Of course, fans of the comic were a little harder to convince, and it isn’t hard to see why — with the director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure at the helm and the star of Gung Ho and Mr. Mom playing Batman, it seemed like a reprise of the campy Adam West era was nigh. As it turned out, Burton’s Batman vision was darker than anyone gave him credit for — and the film’s runaway success proved that movies based on comics didn’t have to be kids’ stuff. Calling it “a success for several reasons,” Cinemaphile’s David Keyes added that “most of the credit goes to director Tim Burton’s brilliant visual interpretation of a dark, ominous comic book.”


9. Big Fish

After facing the loudest critical catcalls of his career with 2001’s Planet of the Apes, Burton needed a rebound — and he got it with Big Fish. It certainly had its detractors — Jim Lane of the Sacramento News & Review, for one, was annoyed by what he called “Burton’s flourishes of self-satisfied frippery” — but most critics were satisfied with the way Burton brought his signature visual style to bear on this adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel about a father whose propensity for tall tales has driven a wedge between himself and his son. Burton, who had recently lost both of his parents, knew a thing or two about strained family relations, and that no doubt enabled him to bring an extra personal touch to this whimsically bittersweet drama. As Rob Nelson of the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages observed, “Burton, favoring form over content, flavor over fact, has been often criticized for not knowing how to bring his work to satisfactory resolution. But I’d call that a good thing. Blame it on his dad.”


8. Batman Returns

Though he was initially reluctant to film a Batman sequel, Burton was eventually persuaded to return to Gotham after wresting complete creative control from Warner Bros. and hiring Daniel Waters (who worked with Burton on an attempted Beetlejuice sequel) to write the script. The result was 1992’s Batman Returns, a casting dream that found Batman (Michael Keaton, donning the cowl for the final time) facing off against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, resplendent in leather) and the Penguin (a scenery-chewing Danny DeVito). Though some critics (and parents) felt the film was too dark, most reviews were positive; in fact, before Christopher Nolan came along with Batman Begins, Batman Returns was the best-reviewed film in the franchise, something Desson Thompson of the Washington Post attributed to the fact that it “Comes closer than ever to Bob Kane’s dark, original strip, which began in 1939.”


7. Beetlejuice

Burton and Warner Bros. toiled for years on a Batman script, leaving him free to entertain other projects — but it wasn’t until Michael McDowell’s original screenplay for Beetlejuice crossed Burton’s desk that he felt like he’d met his match. After hiring Warren Skaaren to give McDowell’s rather dark and violent script a more family-friendly polish, Burton set about filming what would end up becoming one of 1988’s most successful movies — an absurd ghost comedy starring Michael Keaton as the titular “bio-exorcist” that a pair of ghosts (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) hire to rid their home of its obnoxious living residents. Bustling with kooky special effects, off-the-wall humor, and Harry Belafonte songs, Beetlejuice racked up almost $75 million in domestic grosses, cementing Burton’s status as a bankable filmmaker (and speeding Batman‘s development in the process). More than just a fine early example of Burton’s skewed sensibilities, Beetlejuice remains a thoroughly enjoyable comedy; in the words of eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg, it “Coasts by like a rocket, thanks to Keaton’s inspired performance and Burton’s dark-carnival lunacy.”


6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

If a movie had never been made from Roald Dahl’s classic tale of a reclusive, legendarily eccentric candy maker and the children whose lives he alters forever, Tim Burton would have been the perfect director to make it happen. Of course, as we all know, Mel Stuart directed Gene Wilder in a 1971 adaptation — one that, despite Dahl’s negative reaction, was remembered fondly by many of the kids who grew up with it. Greeted with a fair amount of skepticism, Burton’s new take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory threatened to be a misfire of epic proportions — Johnny Depp playing Wonka as a cross between Anna Wintour and Michael Jackson? Say what? — but Burton’s instincts ultimately proved both lucrative (Charlie grossed nearly $475 million worldwide) and critically successful. Writing for the Independent, Robert Hanks echoed the sentiments of many of his peers when he pointed out, “In its combination of fidelity to its source and wacky visual ideas, Burton’s take is a triumph of common sense and imagination — exactly the qualities for which we admire children.”



5. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

Tim Burton was heavily involved with 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it wasn’t until 2005’s Corpse Bride that he got around to directing his first full-length animated film, an update on a centuries-old legend about a man (Johnny Depp) who unwittingly hitches himself to an undead wife (Helena Bonham Carter). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Corpse Bride‘s spindly, pale characters looked a lot like Jack Skellington and his friends — and the movie sounded mighty familiar, too, featuring the voices of a number of Burton vets (including Depp, Carter, and Albert Finney) as well as the requisite Danny Elfman score. With Burton surrounded by familiar faces and firmly ensconsed in his thematic wheelhouse, it only makes sense that Corpse Bride was successful with filmgoers (grossing over $100 million worldwide) as well as critics; as Zertinet’s Steven Snyder opined, “Tim Burton so believably brings his worlds to life, with such a dark, dreamy and dazzling imagination, that we all but take for granted that he has taken us on some of the most delightfully absurd adventures of modern cinema.”


4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Love, vengeance, madness, and lots of blood — what could be more perfect than Tim Burton directing an adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the Victorian tale of an unjustly imprisoned barber who uses his razor to get even (and then some)? On the other hand, once word got out that Burton was using Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd musical as inspiration, skeptics immediately scoffed at the idea of asking Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Alan Rickman to sing the songs of a Broadway legend — particularly Depp, whose musical aspirations had always been limited to the guitar. While it’s true that Burton’s Sweeney may not have featured the most stageworthy singing, any vocal deficiencies were more than compensated with the sheer bloody spectacle of a talented director bringing his lens to bear on one of the grisliest tales ever to grace the Great White Way. Calling it “As unsettling as it is riveting,” Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch promised, “even Sondheim aficionados will see the story with fresh eyes, unless those eyes are covered.”


3. Edward Scissorhands

After Batman went down as the biggest box office hit of 1989, Tim Burton had his pick of projects — and he chose the one closest to his heart. Edward Scissorhands was a story that had been gestating since Burton’s lonely days as a teenager in Southern California; granted creative control by Fox (which purchased the rights from a distinterested Warner Bros.), he ran through a list of actors that included William Hurt, Robert Downey, Jr., and Toms Hanks and Cruise before deciding Johnny Depp would be perfect to play the film’s central character, the lonely, blade-fingered creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price). Of course, at the time, nobody knew Edward Scissorhands would mark the beginning of a partnership between Burton and Depp that currently stands at seven films and counting; they only knew, in the words of the Deseret News’ Chris Hicks, that the film was “quite a surprise” and “an utterly enchanting fairy tale.”


2. Ed Wood

He’s enjoyed more critical acclaim and commercial success than most directors, but it seems fair to say Tim Burton has spent a good portion of his career feeling misunderstood — which is surely part of what drew Burton to Ed Wood, a biopic of the oft-derided director who gifted the cinema with films such as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Its screenplay was penned by Problem Child writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — both of whom knew a thing or two about battling the low expectations of others — and befitting its subject, Ed Wood was punted around the studio system before landing at Disney, where Burton received the full creative control he craved. The result, running more than two hours in deeply unfashionable black and white, was a predictable box office flop — but it resonated strongly with critics, who embraced it as, in Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing’s estimation, “A gentle valentine that celebrates the creative spirit, no matter how misguided that particular spirit happens to be.”


1. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

Burton’s cult classic short films Vincent and Frankenweenie caught the eye of Paul Reubens, who drafted the as yet unproven director for his first big-screen foray, 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. On paper, it seems rather unlikely that filmgoers would be interested in plunking down for the absurd adventures of a bow tie-wearing man-child who hitchhikes across the country in search of his stolen bike, but Big Adventure was a big hit, kickstarting Burton’s career and leading to five delightfully strange Saturday morning seasons of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on CBS. A quarter century after it was released, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure remains a cult classic — and it will always be, as Cole Smithey described it, “Goofy, silly, and just plain funny.”

In case you were wondering, here are Burton’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Edward Scissorhands — 88%

2. Big Fish — 86%

3. Ed Wood — 83%

4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street — 81%

5. Sleepy Hollow — 79%

6. Batman — 78%

7. Beetlejuice — 77%

8. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride — 76%

9. Alice in Wonderland — 72%

10. Batman Returns — 68%

Take a look through Burton’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Frankenweenie.


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