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A Critical Appreciation of Tim Burton’s Films

When you watch a movie by Tim Burton, you’re never entirely sure what you’re going to see next, but you do know that you’re going to be dazzled by a kind of wild-and-woolly exuberant gothic dementia, drawn into a connection with a character who almost any other filmmaker would treat as a mere sideshow. The filmmaker will have his hands and feet encased in cement Sept. 8 in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood ahead of the release of his latest film, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”

In Burton’s world, it’s the sideshow that’s center stage. For 30 years now, he has been Hollywood’s reigning pop poet of fractured-fairy-tale outsiders: the misfits and the oddballs, the jokers and the wackadoos, the headless horsemen and the humanoid apes, the cracked aesthetes and the misunderstood monsters. His movies are hellzapoppin’ comic nightmares populated by a rogues’ gallery of freaks. The Burton touch is that he dunks each of these characters in a sympathy so sincere that it’s downright haunting.

In “Edward Scissorhands,” the 1990 movie that’s one of Burton’s most personal (it’s like a nightmare tucked inside a Christmas snow globe), Johnny Depp plays the title character as a whey-faced boy in wild hair and punk leather whose hands are giant metal threshers that could kill you. But instead of making Edward ferocious, those hands have made him a wounded pussycat. He alone knows the destructive power he’s holding inside, and that’s the beauty of the movie — the way it turns that hint of violence into crazed funhouse art.

“The Burton touch is that he dunks each of these characters in a sympathy so sincere that it’s downright haunting.”

In “Batman,” Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a leeringly malicious palm-buzzer lunatic, and in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Depp updates Gene Wilder’s famous performance by turning Willy Wonka into a deranged cross between Michael Jackson and Anna Wintour. In “Beetlejuice,” Michael Keaton plays the title ghost as if he were a rotting jack-in-the Box who had leapt right out of his box. And on and on. Even the aliens in Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” are cackling brain-head pranksters who will singe you with their death-ray.

What makes these characters indelible is the supreme joy they take in being the weirdoes they are, in letting their hair down and letting it rip, whether it’s Pee-wee Herman getting up on a bar to do his sublime arm waggle to “Tequila” or Edward D. Wood Jr. shooting the worst movie ever made as if it were the best movie ever made. Burton’s films look like dreamscapes designed by a deeply disturbed toymaker; they’re indelibly cracked visions. But that’s because the films are really wearing their insides on the outside. When you watch a Burton movie, you get to live right in the playhouse of Pee-wee’s mind, or swoop through the canyons of Gotham City as if you were Batman, or see those cruddy cardboard ‘50s movies just the way Ed Wood saw them: as transcendent works of art. Acting out only makes them better. In Tim Burton’s movies, it’s always Halloween, but the cosmic catch is that the costumes you’re looking at aren’t disguises. They’re who everybody really is.

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