×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Roberto Schaefer

    Netflix Image Enhancement Rules Take Cinematographers by Surprise

    A Netflix requirement that cinematographers capture films in HDR, or high dynamic range, has taken many by surprise, filmmakers say, but those at the 27th EnergaCamerimage festival in Poland seem increasingly accepting of the change. DP Roberto Schaefer, whose “Red Sea Diving Resort” screened at the cinematography fest in the historic city of Torun, said [...]

  • Lech Majewski and Josh Hartnett

    Lech Majewski on ‘Valley of the Gods,’ Navaho Mythology, Josh Hartnett, Keir Dullea

    TORUN, Poland – In his latest work, “The Valley of the Gods,” director Lech Majewski explores the ancient mythology of a downtrodden people and the absurd wealth of the world’s richest man in a surreal vision of modern America. The film screened at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival as part of special showcase honoring Majewski, [...]

  • The Red Sea Diving Resort

    Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer on Gideon Raff's Thriller ‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’

    TORUN, Poland – While Gideon Raff’s Netflix thriller “The Red Sea Diving Resort” shot largely in South Africa and Namibia, the project was a welcomed opportunity for cinematographer Roberto Schaefer due to his own memorable travels through Ethiopia. The film, which screened in the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival’s Contemporary World Cinema section, is loosely based [...]

  • Film director and scriptwriter Vojtech Jasny

    Vojtech Jasny, Award-Winning Czech Filmmaker, Dies at 93

    Czech filmmaker Vojtech Jasny, director of “All My Good Countrymen,” which won the best director prize at Cannes in 1969, has died. He was 93. According to the Associated Press, Slovacke divadlo, a theatre he frequently visited, said that Jasny died Friday, and a family representative confirmed his death to the CTK news agency. Jasny [...]

  • Noelle Anna Kendrick

    Film Review: 'Noelle' on Disney Plus

    What do you get when you toss together Christmas cheer, Christmas kitsch, a fish-out-of-the-North-Pole setup swiped from “Elf,” and a plot that turns on whether Kris Kringle’s daughter, played as a perky naïf by Anna Kendrick, has what it takes to step into her dad’s snow boots? You get a plastic icicle like “Noelle,” Long [...]

  • Scandalous

    Film Review: 'Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer'

    When grocery store shoppers snag a copy of Weekly World News (the rag responsible for the refuses-to-die “Bat Child” hoax), they know they’re getting fake news. But when they pick up the National Enquirer, it’s a far more ambiguous prospect. Enquirer headlines are deliberately provocative, shouting details of the private lives of real people — [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content