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While he may have approached self-parody on occasion in recent years, many still consider Tim Burton to be a fantastic filmmaker. From his bizarre early career experiences with Disney, Burton’s films emerged with a fully-formed, striking aesthetic and go-to subject matter. Above all else he would go on to establish a career filled with compositions of love letters to the lonely outsider, striking a chord with introverted film-goers everywhere.
In this list, we’re counting down every film from this truly unique director’s filmography and ranking them from worst to best, so put on your best striped apparel, muss up your hair and accompany me in a long and elaborate tracking shot into the Burton-verse…
19. Planet of the Apes (2001)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti
Plot: An astronaut crashes on a planet where apes have out-evolved and enslaved humanity. He befriends a chimp who has become a lonely outsider by protesting the inhumane treatment of the subjugated humans. The two begin to organise a rebellion…
The poster-child for when Burton gets it wrong, Planet of the Apes is pretty good to look at (which Burton movie isn’t?) but it’s completely soulless and almost impossible to engage with in any meaningful way – the main thing that has allowed the original Planet of the Apes to age so well is its wealth of ideas and the filmmakers’ abilities to give them room to breathe. Despite being more action-packed and significantly pacier, Burton’s take feels rushed and confused, and very little stays with you beyond Rick Baker’s flawless makeup effects and the best efforts of Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth. The bottom line is that it’s boring; the only Burton feature you could really level that criticism at.
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18. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry
Plot: Alice Kingsleigh, whose determination to retain her independence has made her a lonely outsider in Victorian high society, returns to Wonderland having forgotten her childhood adventure. There she finds the fantastical realm is a shadow of its former foolish glory.
Who else thought that this would be perfect material for Burton?
The portions that faithfully recreate Lewis Carroll’s endearing nonsense are good, but sadly most of this is confined to brief flashbacks and instead we’re left with a new story that for some reason is trying to turn Alice into a fantasy epic. Alice isn’t The Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Narnia. Nor should it be.
Burton gets bogged down in clunky exposition and portentous talk of prophecy and destiny, and the world, while admittedly colourful, feels too fake even for a dreamland. This film makes it really easy to miss the days when Burton played in big, ambitious movie sets rather than in front of a greenscreen.
Mia Wasikowska is admittedly a great Alice, equal parts bewildered and strong-willed, and Stephen Fry makes a perfect smug Cheshire Cat, but everyone else in the cast is just treading water.
17. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor
Plot: Dirt poor but positive young Charlie Bucket finds a golden ticket that grants him a tour of the reclusive, lonely outsider Willy Wonka’s weird and wonderful chocolate factory.
Maybe Burton should leave the adaptations well alone.
The famously distinctive director never seems as comfortable bringing someone else’s established world to life, even if he’s coming at it as a fan. No-one’s denying that this is a more faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book than the Gene Wilder movie, or that Burton’s visual flare and strange Anglo-American neverwhere movie world makes an impression, but the movie references peppered throughout are a really weird grab-bag, the borderline colonialist tone of some of the fantasy sequences leave a bad taste and Depp’s take on Wonka with daddy issues is just plain irritating to spend any length of time with.
Can you believe they actually trained squirrels to shell nuts on camera?
16. Dark Shadows (2012)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloe Grace Moretz, Helena Bonham Carter
Plot: Centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins awakens in the 1970s to restore his descendants’ former glory and seek revenge on the witch who cursed him, but can this family of lonely outsiders find their place in the world again?
Johnny Depp doing a funny voice in a wig and makeup? Check. Gothic sensibility? Check. Comedy of awkwardness? Check. This represents mid-to-low level Burton, the kind of thing he could make in his sleep: perfectly watchable and by no means inept but offering very little that’ll stay with you. Okay, it’s got a sex-fight-scene between Depp’s vampire and Eva Green’s witch, and there’s also some pretty good effects work as the aforementioned witch is losing her powers and seems to fracture like pottery. But… elsewhere it’s just oral sex jokes that are borderline inappropriate for the film’s certification and Depp pulling faces.