Tim Burton developed a storytelling language in the 1980s that quickly consumed his films. He employed visuals that were immediately striking but also lingered in our minds. His characters, often disempowered and lonely, lived in worlds that sought their demise. To live in a Burton film was to live in constant isolation, entangled in a visual style that sent chills to the bone.
He collaborated with Johnny Depp on eight movies, forging a professional partnership as recognisable as Leone and Eastwood, or Kurosawa and Mifune. As Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children approaches, however, I look back on the Burton films over the years that have found their way into our collective consciousness by leaving Depp out of the picture.
5. Frankenweenie (2012)
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara
I would be remiss not to include a Burton stop-motion production. Stop-motion has been around as early as the 1900s, and fuelled the special effects of action classics like King Kong (1933) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but Burton’s uncanny marriage of the morose and finely-tuned physical craftsmanship pioneered a fresh flavour of entertainment.
Frankenweenie, his latest stop-motion effort, is both endearing and morbid (a dog actually gets run over by a car). It harkens back to the golden age of Hollywood monster movies and finds the right notes to bring it down to a level comfortable for kids. It may not be as seminal as Corpse Bride (2005) or Burton’s creative brainchild, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), but Frankenweenie can be admired simply for its dedication to puppetry perfection.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito
Infinitely darker and more intense than its predecessor, Batman Returns is also clumsier and more camp, featuring a Penguin (Danny DeVito) who somehow learns English and violence from a colony of waddling birds, who grow up to be terrorists. But this moody sequel is wicked fun, almost bordering on horror territory.
Like Batman (1989), the film doesn’t work as a Bruce Wayne biography – we never learn how or why he chooses to become a superhero – but its images are unforgettable. The towering Christmas tree in downtown Gotham releasing a swarm of bats. The Penguin bouncing and jiving in his remote-control Batmobile. Michelle Pfeiffer’s fetishistic bondage costume and customary whip. If the first film established the arena, this one dumbs the characters down and amps up the atmosphere.
3. Beetlejuice (1988)
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton
Beetlejuice can be considered the genesis of Burton’s vision; a dark, grisly supernatural gimmick combining stop-motion with grotesque imagery, three short years after the suburban whimsy of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. What starts off as a genial romance between Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis quickly degenerates into a series of props, costumes and visual trickery. Heads pop off. Eyeballs fall out. Backyards are replaced with vast desert dunes. It all looks fantastic.
And that, I suppose, is the point with Beetlejuice. Content with a boilerplate screenplay that didn’t favour human emotions, Burton focused instead on creating scene after scene of innovative and screeching designs, aimed, of course, to scorch themselves in the back of our minds. By the end of the movie, we are branded, and not just by the memory of Baldwin and Davis as clueless ghosts, but by Michael Keaton’s astonishingly vulgar turn as one of Hollywood’s most treasured demons.
2. Big Fish (2003)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange
Quiet. Powerful. Tragic. Big Fish means different things to different people. Either you hold its hand and allow its family drama to drag you down with it (as it did me), or you admire it from a distance and lament Burton’s lack of visual energy. There’s much to treasure in the designs of the characters, to be sure, but Big Fish tells a story that’s broken at the heart and in desperate need of mending. Its visuals aren’t the point.
There’s a hint of Life of Pi (2012) about its ways. The film tries to reunite a son with his estranged father via a string of outlandish – and repeated – fables about the father’s life as a young carnie. Either you believe them, or you choose to put your faith in the whispered words of truth. Big Fish isn’t as ambiguous as Pi, but its firm grasp on the dynamics of family is what punches you hard in the gut. If you allow it.
1. Batman (1989)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
If Beetlejuice was the genesis of Burton’s trademark style, his 1989 adaptation of Batman is the racehorse that breaks for the finish. Before Batman, everyone’s idea of the caped crusader was Adam West waving a finger and instructing kids to remember their geography. The film noir detective of the comics was lost. Batman does away with the geography and the campy underwear and reintroduces a harder, more troubled hero.
Bound by twisted edifices and an overall feeling of claustrophobia, Burton’s Batman is unequivocally damaged. Michael Keaton brings both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego some much needed humanity, and reassures us that under that cowl breathes a man, not a public service announcement. Add to that a sparkling performance by Jack Nicholson as a Joker that’s actually scary and you’ve got a formula that works even today. It lacks a proper origin story, but one could certainly argue that without Batman, Henry Cavill might’ve had to share Batman V Superman’s poster with Adam West.
Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Roadshow Films, Chapel Distribution, Sony Pictures