Tim Burton is the ultimate example of how almost every outsider, once they become successful enough, can’t help but become an insider. Burton famously quit a job as a Disney animator — one of the most coveted jobs in animation, obviously — out of frustration that he couldn’t make his own voice heard, so he went out on his own to make two deeply original short films, Frankenweenie and Vincent, about (and/or starring) his childhood hero, Vincent Price. This led to him being noticed by studios, and within five years of his second short, he had directed three consecutive massive hits for Warner Bros.: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman. The guy too weird for Disney was suddenly one of the biggest, most powerful directors in the world.
Ultimately, though, Burton would become too much of a studio guy, a director whose vision became commoditized and watered down by success, to the point that he ended up turning back in the other direction, trying to make his movies smaller and more personal again, with varying success. Still, he remains one of the most influential and unique voices in American movies: It’s difficult to imagine the last 30 years of Hollywood without him.
With the release of his latest film Dumbo, here is our ranking of his 19 theatrical releases, from worst to first.
19. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Because of the great, more recent Planet of the Apes reboots from a few years ago, you might have forgotten that Fox had tried once before to bring this sci-fi franchise back to the big screen. We are here to remind you that Tim Burton took a stab at it with this god-awful remake. Mark Wahlberg plays an astronaut who gets beamed to a planet full of talking apes, and what follows is everything that’s insufferable about Burton: curdled humor, a boringly “visionary” take, a story that becomes increasingly less interesting precisely because the director doesn’t seem to care. Famously, Wahlberg signed up for the film after meeting with Burton for five minutes. Later, though, perhaps he realized his mistake: “Acting with people in gorilla suits is not exactly something that turned me on,” the actor said before Planet’s release, “but I had to keep reminding myself the reason why I was there. There were days that I started to panic. The first day I freaked out. There was this kid with tribal markings on his face, a guy in a gorilla suit, and Helena. It all seemed pretty ridiculous.” It turned out to be even worse than that, Mark.
18. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland was the first major 3D release after Avatar’s whirlwind success, and we suspect that James Cameron’s game changer helped stoke viewers’ interest in more stereoscopic films. This would explain why Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel remains his highest-grossing film worldwide, by a wide margin, because it’s sure not the quality of the storytelling. Mia Wasikowska is Alice, but no one who bought tickets was interested in her — they wanted to see Burton’s overblown treatment of Wonderland, complete with an excruciating Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. The costumes by Colleen Atwood are predictably terrific, but this Alice is otherwise an eyesore, the apotheosis of Burton’s whimsical/magical shtick.
17. Dark Shadows (2012)
If Burton had made Dark Shadows, say, 15 years earlier, you wonder if it might have worked. Back then, he might have been able to see the campy humor in this shticky but compelling cult item and done something satirical and weird with it, and he would have had a much more lithe and game Johnny Depp to do it with. But by 2012, Burton’s style had devolved into leaden clichés. This big-screen adaptation became just another dull brand-name reboot that Depp sleepwalks through and Burton doesn’t bother making anything more than a big-budget snoozer. Not even a very fun Eva Green can salvage this.
16. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Would you believe that this is Burton’s second-biggest hit worldwide? On the one hand, it makes sense, given the widely popular source material. On the other hand … This remake lacks most of the oddball charm of the original and all of the wicked fun of Roald Dahl’s book, and 13 years out, even the film’s primary virtue – Burton’s set design, his perpetual world of wonder – has lost most of its panache. The film also doesn’t even have the nerve of the original: The bad kids are punished, but there is little fire and justice in their downfalls. And don’t get us started on Depp’s shiftless and odd Willy Wonka, who reportedly was conceived as a riff on Michael Jackson. This film’s success was bad for both Depp and Burton moving forward.
15. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
By the time Burton adapted Ransom Riggs’s 2011 novel about an X-Men–esque home for misfits with superpowers, it was far too easy to imagine the sort of labored, fantastical contraption that would result. Call it lowered expectations after Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, but Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is slightly better than one might imagine. Asa Butterfield plays a young man who finds himself on a magical island that contains a mansion filled with outcast youths overseen by Eva Green’s quirky Miss Peregrine. Burton plays with stop-motion and other fun effects, but the damn movie’s too busy most of the time, struggling so mightily to enchant us.
14. Big Fish (2003)
What was considered by many to be Burton’s mature breakthrough is, for us, another indication of his serious limitations as a storyteller. Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel, the movie stars Ewan McGregor as a boyish fabulist and Billy Crudup as his son who, years later, tries to understand who his father really was. Big Fish is textbook one-from-the-heart storytelling, a very conscious attempt on Burton’s part to put aside big-budget filmmaking for something far more personal and emotional. But Burton can’t help himself: The vignettes depicting McGregor’s tall tales still possess the cutesiness that has been his crutch for years. And while the story has an undeniable, inherent resonance, Big Fish’s big themes are often at odds with how pleased Burton is in unleashing visual flourishes or eliciting tears during the finale. He pushes too hard for his effects, as always.
13. Dumbo (2019)
It’s easy to forget as Disney rolls out a series of live-action adaptations of its animated classics (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, the forthcoming Aladdin, and The Lion King) that Burton actually started the trend with 2010’s mega-successful Alice in Wonderland. So it’s not entirely surprising that he was asked to helm Dumbo, which tells the story of the titular elephant who discovers he can fly. There’s no Timothy Q. Mouse in this remake, but there is a real sense of wonder to the film’s aerial sequences — not to mention the enjoyment of having Batman and Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton return to a Burton film, playing a shady businessman who sees big bucks in exploiting Dumbo’s talent. This is one of the director’s better recent efforts, more soaring and less entombed in his cynical, snarky worldview. But if at this point you’ve become allergic to the man’s visual overabundance and utter indifference to crafting three-dimensional characters, Dumbo will only exacerbate your condition. In this movie, a pachyderm can reach the heavens, but a veteran filmmaker can’t change his stripes.
12. Frankenweenie (2012)
The original 1984 short, which helped make Burton’s name, is a charming little concoction about a boy who decides to reanimate his beloved dog after it dies. The 2012 full-length remake is a little less charming, although its black-and-white visuals are often quite striking. Frankenweenie is Burton’s geeky salute to old Frankenstein flicks, but the wit of the homage can’t always overcome the director’s habitual inability to tell stories without a surfeit of strained gags and indifferent plotting. Still, its short running time keeps Burton’s excesses from becoming intolerable, and its giddy, chaotic shift into kid-friendly horror near the end feels like a heartfelt, nostalgic acknowledgement of his outsider-artist youth.
11. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Of Burton’s director-for-hire period, Sleepy Hollow is the most successful. For the most part, he plays it straight, working from a screenplay by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker that adapts the Washington Irving story into a horror-detective film. Depp is Ichabod Crane, New York cop, who ventures to Sleepy Hollow to figure out why people keep losing their heads. Mood and atmospherics outpace the plot, but Sleepy Hollow is flat-out gorgeous. (The cinematography comes from three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, while Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.) On the whole, we’ll take Sleepy Hollow’s efficient, somewhat anonymous macabre over the director’s more ambitious flights of fancy that would soon become his staple.
10. Corpse Bride (2005)
Unlike Burton’s other stop-animation forays, which he produced and Henry Selick directed, Burton shared directing duties with Mike Johnson for this one. While the plot — sweet macabre boy falls in a love triangle with his fiancée and a zombie — is pure Burton, the movie has a bittersweet, sad tone that belies some of his usual whimsy in a way that works really well. The animation is wonderful, too, and actually quite a bit better than The Nightmare Before Christmas, its more beloved forebearer. And as the main two voices, Depp and Helena Bonham Carter hadn’t quite calcified into caricature: They’re both still enough in the game to make you feel it.
9. Big Eyes (2014)
Divisive but fascinating, Big Eyes is one of the few Burton films this century that doesn’t feel like the director just went on autopilot. There are blessedly few visual tics in this biopic of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her domineering husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who for years took credit for her work. Ed Wood is clearly the precedent for Big Eyes’ amused examination of kitsch art — Margaret’s paintings were popular but critically derided — but Burton honestly engages with the material, pondering how commerce and creativity intersect. Waltz is undeniably hammy as Walter, but it’s effective in depicting a bully who convinced his meek wife that he had her best interests at heart. Burton is often criticized, rightly, for seeming uninterested in human beings. But Adams’s silently-suffering portrayal of Margaret, a woman who found her artistic voice before finding her freedom, suggests that, every once in a while, Burton latches onto someone he cares about.
Burton has never received a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards, but he does have one Golden Globe nod, and out of all his movies, it was for this one, his adaptation of the dark, beloved stage musical. Musicals aren’t necessarily in Burton’s strike zone: There’s an urgency and naked earnestness to them, a plain eagerness to please, that doesn’t come naturally to Burton. (His camera seems to shrug a little as soon as the music starts.) The movie is still pretty fun, though, with a surprisingly forthright performance from Depp (who gets his rock-star rocks off) and some excellent supporting work from Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and especially Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a blast in his brief, grisly appearance. The movie requires a delicate balance that Burton isn’t always able to pull off, but it still holds onto its zing.
7. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Film critic Peter Rainer once said of this nutso sci-fi satire, “Part homage and part demolition job, Mars Attacks! is perhaps the funniest piece of giddy schlock heartlessness ever committed to film.” Released about six months after Independence Day, this snarling adaptation of the 1960s Topps trading cards came across as an unwitting send-up of that invasion movie’s cheerful, gung-ho, big-spectacle inanity. Mars Attacks! has no wisecracking Will Smith hero or earnest Bill Pullman president: Instead, we have a cavalcade of moronic humans, including Jack Nicholson’s dumb POTUS, discovering that the visiting extraterrestrials mean us harm. Burton proves to be a traitor to his species, clearly siding with the aliens as they lay waste to our self-absorbed asses. Even better, Mars Attacks! gets us on his side: This was perhaps the last time Burton so profoundly articulated his malcontent streak, fantasizing about the annihilation of our vapid world so that a new one can take over. In a weird way, Mars Attacks! isn’t just funny but deeply personal.
6. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
It’s amazing how much of the Burton aesthetic was locked in place from his first film: An outsider who doesn’t fit in with the outside world. Moments of gothic horror that both shock and amuse. (“Tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya!”) A Danny Elfman score that always makes you feel like you’re in a universe that’s ever-so-slightly skewed from our own. Paul Reubens and his co-writer Phil Hartman hand-picked Burton to make his directorial debut after seeing his short film Frankenweenie, and he was an inspired choice: He makes the world of Pee-Wee Herman feel just normal enough to emphasize its strangeness. So many lesser filmmakers would have made this corny and maybe even a little unbearable. Burton made it a classic.
5. Batman Returns (1992)
The sequel to the film that basically made Burton’s career was greeted with derision and confusion upon release, but time has been kind to Burton’s aggressively cuckoo follow-up, which is less about comic book superheroes saving the day and more about sad loners and outcasts looking for some sort of a connection in a world that actively shuns them. This is the blockbuster-as-personal-statement, and one worries that Burton, who was taken off the Batman franchise after this one, might have learned the wrong lesson. (None of his other studio wide-releases have ever felt as close to his heart as this one.) And what villains! Christopher Walken is a howlingly fun capitalist villain — we love the way he shrugs before he kills someone — and Danny DeVito is an actively repulsive Penguin: He always seems to be oozing something out of somewhere. But it’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman who’s the center of what Burton’s going for here: She’s sexy and deadly and utterly lost. You can’t take your eyes off her, still, more than 25 years later.
4. Batman (1989)
The first modern superhero movie — and the one that created the template for how Hollywood thought about comic book films. Before Batman, there was Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve and a Superman who was a sunny, aw-shucks construction. Burton torpedoed that square folksiness, giving us a Dark Knight who was hip and edgy. By contemporary standards, Batman isn’t nearly as morose or operatic as your typical blockbuster, but what it retains is the sense of a distinctive filmmaker infusing his funky soul into a piece of intellectual property, making us see Batman the way he saw the Caped Crusader: as a lonely misfit who had more in common with his nemesis, the Joker, than he cared to admit. The thundering Danny Elfman score and the catchy Prince songs, Anton Furst’s gothic production design and Jack Nicholson’s bombastic performance: Batman is bold and giddy, powered by artists who have been allowed to dream big. Superhero movies eventually conquered Hollywood, but few of them feel as epochal and vital as this one.
3. Beetlejuice (1988)
For all of movie history’s great what-if casting coulda-beens, Beetlejuice might have the best of all of them: Burton wanted Sammy Davis Jr. to play the titular poltergeist. Studio executives talked him down, and let us say this because we so rarely get to say it: Thank heavens for those studio executives. Someone suggested Michael Keaton, whom Burton didn’t know, and he turned out to be perfect: the exact right mix of hellzapoppin’ energy and genuine menace. This is another of those movies it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Burton directing. It’s light and slapsticky in a way that’s charming and accessible, but creepy and startling when you least expect it. And he was helped dramatically by a cast full of actors who were just about to bust out: Getting Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, and Keaton as your leads would be about 20 times more expensive five years later. And don’t forget Dick Cavett!
2. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Johnny Depp has become a disaster in just about every way: financially, artistically, even morally. But if you want to see what he was capable of at the peak of his powers, when he was undermining every aspect of his burgeoning stardom and playing a series of ungainly, awkward sad loners who were just too sensitive for this world, look at this unlikely hit, the film that to this day feels like the purest expression of Burton’s sensibility. This is how Burton chose to spend his Batman spoils, this dark suburban fantasy about a poor teenager so distanced from the world that he has scissors for hands: a monster who can never let anyone near. Depp’s otherworldliness is perfect here, and Winona Ryder is exactly right as the girl who sees herself in this “freak.” This movie still sort of breaks your heart a little. You can’t hold everything that came afterward against it.
1. Ed Wood (1994)
There might be no purer distillation of what makes Burton both great and terrible than the fact that his best film remains his biggest flop. This biopic of the notoriously talentless filmmaker — written by the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, of The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon — is hilarious and deeply affecting, in both the portrait of the filmmaker himself (played with irrepressible cheer by Depp) and, especially, his friend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, in the role that would win him an Oscar). To the rest of the world, Lugosi is a has-been heroin addict, but to Wood, he’s the biggest star in the world, a disconnect that serves as the beating heart of the film: Artistic expression is for everyone, even the deluded … or rather, especially the deluded. (The point is nicely underscored by a fantastic scene where Wood meets Orson Welles.) This might be the Burton movie the fewest people have seen, but it remains, nearly 25 years later, his best. Pull the strings!