Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has just opened, and although we’re still looking for an opportunity to see it, that (plus our visit to the fascinating but poorly presented Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art) has made me reflect on his unusual place in my personal pantheon. If you asked me to create a list of my top ten favorite directors—which could be the subject of a whole new post, or series thereof—he almost certainly wouldn’t be on it, unless I was restricted to living people…in which case it might be tough to come up with ten.
Paradoxically, however, his batting average is significantly higher than that of, say, Alfred Hitchcock (my all-time favorite), John Frankenheimer, or Mario Bava (of whom Burton is also an acknowledged fan). In fact, I have loved all but one of his previous features, and the sole exception, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), was through no fault of his own, but simply because I cannot abide the character of Pee-wee. So let’s take a quick spin through the rest of the Burton filmography…
Beetlejuice (1988): Watching Michael Keaton cavorting as the eponymous bio-exorcist makes it easy to see why people (myself included) were a mite dubious about his casting as Burton’s Batman the following year. Not because he didn’t give a great performance, but because the character seemed about as far as could be from the Caped Crusader. But hey, I guess that’s why they call it “acting.” Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are at their most charming as a couple who don’t initially realize they’re dead, and seek Beetlejuice’s help with decidedly mixed results; Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and proto-Goth chick Winona Ryder are the family they’re trying to drive out of their (now former) home. The off-the-wall sensibility and imaginative visuals demonstrate that the Burton style is fully in evidence already.
Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992): I would rank these with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and Batman Begins (2005) among the best comic-book movies I’ve seen. I’d also put Batman Returns among the best sequels, even if it did popularize the two-villain routine that has hampered so many comic-book films. Keaton was a pleasant surprise, effectively embodying the Dark (in every sense) Knight and a conflicted Bruce Wayne, while the Joker (Jack Nicolson), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) were outstanding villains.
Edward Scissorhands (1990): The chameleonic Johnny Depp began his seven-film (to date) association with Burton on this dark fable, and as I’ve often said, anybody doubting his range as an actor need only see him in the antithetical titles roles of this film and Ed Wood to be convinced. In one of his last films, Vincent Price (who also narrated Burton’s 1982 short Vincent) plays the inventor who creates this leather-clad misfit, and Ryder is the girl who falls for him as he tries to adapt to the ways of a pastel-colored suburbia.
Ed Wood (1994): See “Bradley’s Hundred #21-30.”
Mars Attacks! (1996): Delirious fun inspired by the notorious trading-card series of the early 1960s. The big-brained aliens come to conquer us, and very few of the all-star cast (Nicholson [in a dual role], Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Burton’s then-fiancee Lisa Marie [hilarious as Vampira in Ed Wood], Lukas Haas, the up-and-coming Natalie Portman, Paul Winfield, and Sylvia Sidney in her last movie) survives before a rather unusual method is discovered to stop them. Originally irate at the decision to film the Martians with CGI rather than stop-motion animation, I have since recanted because the movie is so damn good.
Sleepy Hollow (1999): I was initially put off by the somewhat jokey tone of this version of the story of the Headless Horseman (played by Christopher Walken), which I felt was at odds with its status as a reputed homage to Hammer horror. On subsequent viewings, however, I came to feel that Burton had indeed properly integrated the humorous and horrifying aspects of the story. As usual, the cast is excellent, headed by Depp as Ichabod Crane, and featuring Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Burton regular Jeffrey Jones, genre veteran Michael Gough (previously Alfred in Burton’s Batman films), and—last but far from least—Hammer mainstay Christopher Lee, undoubtedly our greatest surviving horror superstar.
Planet of the Apes (2001): Once again, I’m in the minority here, but I was blown away by this film, right from the riveting main-title sequence composed by Burton’s regular collaborator (except on Ed Wood), Danny Elfman. I felt it was one of the best remakes I’d seen, managing the delicate balancing act of being sufficiently like the original that it didn’t feel like one of those in-name-only, why-bother remakes, and sufficiently different that it didn’t feel like one of those been-there, done-that rehashes. As revolutionary as the ape makeup was in the 1968 original, this is naturally far more advanced, and better able to differentiate the ape characters from one another. With Mark Wahlberg in the Charlton Heston role and the usual impressive supporting cast: Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter (who became Burton’s current fiancée and frequent star), Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Burton regular Glenn Shadix, and even Heston himself.
Big Fish (2003): As yet, I’ve seen this and Burton’s subsequent films only once each, so I’m less familiar with them, but my daughter—a huge fan of both Burton and star Ewan McGregor—swears by it. Ewan is the younger version of Albert Finney’s character, a dying man whose estranged son (Billy Crudup) believes him to be nothing but a teller of tall tales, and is now trying to reconcile himself with his father while reconstructing the truth of his life. It displays less of Burton’s style than usual, but that’s understandable, because he’s adapting a novel by Daniel Wallace, and presumably did not want to betray his source material by putting too much of his own stamp on it. Features Bonham Carter, DeVito, Jessica Lange, Steve Buscemi, and the up-and-coming Marion Cotillard.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): As a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s novel, I always thought the Gene Wilder version, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), did a pretty credible job of bringing the book to the screen. Once again, however, Burton has done an excellent remake, including some aspects of the novel that were omitted from the original. Depp stars as the eccentric confectioner who offers several (mostly ill-natured and -fated) children a tour of his top-secret factory, with an eye toward finding a successor; Bonham Carter and Lee are among the supporting cast.
Corpse Bride (2005): Truly out of the mainstream here, I found this stop-motion feature more engaging than the cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Henry Selick—who also directed the 1996 adaptation of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—made under Burton’s aegis. Depp is the hapless hero who gets inadvertently hitched to a corpse; the voice cast also includes Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Joanna Lumley, and usual suspects Bonham Carter, Finney, Lee, Gough, Deep Roy (who, via CGI, played all of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie), and even Elfman.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): Excellent version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, with Depp displaying a surprisingly good singing voice as the tonsorial title character, driven by a lust for vengeance to slit the throats of his customers. Bonham Carter is his partner, Mrs. Lovett, who turns the results into meat pies; Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen are among the villains and victims. My only regret is the omission of the moody “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from the score.