Tim Burton is one of Hollywood’s most left of center film directors. His directing style emphasizes the dark side of human nature and a dark humor pervades his work. It is impossible to see a Tim Burton film without realizing one has stepped into a bizarre world of Burton's own creation. Some of his films are received well, while others fail grandly. As a child of Hollywood, born in Burbank, California, in 1958, he can be said to have turned Hollywood on its ear. His later films have proven commercially successful, yet their gothic influence is remarkably unlike traditionally slick Hollywood productions.
Tim Burton expressed an early interest in campy horror films, and began making his own films with Super 8 cameras as a teen. He was interested in animation and was accepted as a student at the California Institute of Arts. Disney animators taught the courses, keeping Burton’s interest in animation fresh.
Disney immediately hired Tim Burton when he graduated from the institute. Burton’s style was out of step with Disney traditions regarding family films. Two short animated films from Burton’s early work with Disney enjoyed a limited release. The first work is the 1982 six minute short Vincent, which is a claymation tribute to Vincent Price. The second, Frankeweenie is a thirty minute short film about a boy who loses his dog and then attempts, in Frankenstein style, to bring him back from the dead.
On the strength of the second film, Peewee Herman asked Tim Burton to direct Peewee’s Big Adventure. The film was not critically favored, but did enjoy box office returns. 1988 saw the release of another cult classic Beetlejuice, which featured a critically acclaimed performance by Michael Keaton. Batman followed in 1989, strongly emphasizing gothic themes. Danny Elfman composed a dark and suitable score. It has been one of the most successful Tim Burton films. Though Batman had its share of critics, few criticize the scene-stealing performance of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The Joker celebrates evil and the perverse. Batman, played by Keaton, is dark, morose, and though ultimately succeeding in destroying the Joker, he is less fun to watch.
Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp in 1990, was also well received by critics. It is a Pinocchio-style fairy tale, with a tragic ending. A boy with scissors for hands is injected into a very suburban world, and is at first embraced but then cast out by the suburbanites. It is interesting that the true ugliness of the film is not this bizarre boy with scissors for hands, but the boyfriend of the main female character, a jock that does everything he can to hurt and destroy Edward.
1992 and 1993 saw the release of Batman 2 and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nightmare was produced by Tim Burton, and was his return to stop-motion animation. It is significant in its fantastic musical numbers written, composed, and performed by Burton’s long time partner in film, musician Danny Elfman.
Ed Wood is a 1994 biopic, again starring Depp, as the bizarre director Ed Wood, who frequently enjoyed cross-dressing. The film is shot in black and white and critics praised particularly Depp and Marin Landau’s performances. The film cannot be said to have found much of a commercial audience, though fans of Depp now consider it a one of the best films of his career.
In the late nineties, Tim Burton released Mars Attacks! (1996), and Sleepy Hollow (1999), neither of which received much in the way of media attention or box office success. In 2001, Burton directed a remake of the science fiction classic, Planet of the Apes, which was also largely unpopular among critics and fans.
Tim Burton's success turned with the 2003 Big Fish, earning him an Oscar nomination for the film. In 2005, Corpse Bride, produced by Burton, and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, directed by Burton, were both released. Though much darker than the classic Willy Wonka, Burton's version is truer to his own style and to the book by Roald Dahl.
Animation, dark colors, and themes of misery, death, and incongruity are the hallmarks of Tim Burton's body of work. As with many filmmakers who have a unique style, he has established a production team, artistic colleagues, and acting talent that he continues to work with. Burton's upcoming project, a film remake of the Steven Sondheim musical Sweeny Todd is a fine example of this, employing Johnny Depp and other colleagues from his previous projects.