For my generation, Tim Burton films were a big part of the cinematic culture with which we grew up. However, the general consensus among fans in recent years seems to be that Burton’s artistry took a dip at the turn of the century and he became a hack churning out predictable, repetitive gothic dreck. While there’s certainly a change in the kind of films to which Burton seemed drawn in the 21st century, I think this reductive assessment has also led to some very fine later films being prejudged overharshly. This led me to the decision to take another look at Burton’s entire filmography.

All entries contain spoilers. Please note, The Nightmare Before Christmas will not be discussed due to it not being directed by Burton himself.

19. DUMBO

I can’t say that I sat down to watch Dumbo with a particularly open mind. For one thing, the Disney live action/photorealistic remakes/reimaginings of the last ten years or so have been amongst my least favourite films of recent times. As an animation enthusiast, the idea that these films need remaking seems inherently insulting, as if the beautiful stylisation and invention of the originals were just mistakes by people who didn’t have the charm-squashing technology we have now. Quite apart from that, Dumbo has always been not only my favourite Disney film but one of my favourite films of all time. It’s an animation masterclass and its dedication to the artform makes its connection with the medium inextricable. Those who complain that the original Dumbo has a weak plot are missing the point. You may as well level the same accusation at Fantasia. Dumbo is just as clearly about the beauty of its individual vignettes and though they build up into a story of sorts, it’s the journey that is the reward. Dumbo was blatantly going to lose a chunk of its appeal with a shift into live action but the CGI characters don’t just reduce the beauty of the originals, they render them hideously ugly. Like many victims of the ludicrous notion that animation is better the closer you can get it to reality, Dumbo and his mother end up caught in that chilling hinterland between photorealistic elephants and cartoon characters, with none of the considerable appeal of either of those things. I know CG animation is not an easy thing to create. I know it’s not just a matter of pushing a few buttons and generating an elephant. Much work has obviously been put in here but towards a goal that makes me want to throw up. I even had problems with the widely beloved Paddington films because I found the bear disconcertingly unattractive. Without a decent screenplay to back it up, Dumbo was always going to crash to the ground like a flightless pachyderm.

There are those who claim Dumbo is one of the better Disney remakes because it does something different from the original. There is a slight sense of reduced pointlessness in not traipsing through the same plot just with charisma-drained characters as many of these films have, but in trying to build a new plot around the premise of a flying elephant (a trait that the original Dumbo only establishes in its last few minutes), screenwriter Ehren Kruger has packed the new Dumbo with far too many characters and storylines. With the animal characters all rendered mute, this Dumbo becomes a dull story about humans in which a baby elephant occasionally cameos. And I needn’t point out the irony that nearly everyone noticed of the story’s negative depiction of a corporate conglomerate consuming all the smaller businesses in its path. Thanks for that Disney!

Dumbo also makes some adjustments for a new era. Obviously, the controversial crows were always likely to be thrown out completely but Timothy the mouse, one of the greatest Disney little helpers, also gets jettisoned in the process. Most interestingly, Dumbo addresses the cruelty of using animals in circuses, with all of the captive beasts freed at the film’s climax. My moral opposition to the cruelty of circuses has always been a source of guilt in my enjoyment of the original Dumbo, which, as you’d expect from a 40s film, is ambivalent at best about the subject. But though I approve of it from a moral standpoint, as a plot point here it feels tacked on to a film already creaking under the weight of too many other tangents. It’s a shame that the positive elements of Disney remakes, such as the increased diversity that so infuriated devotees of Caucasian fish-women, have emerged as elements of such dreadful films. As a wholehearted supporter of progressive stories, I find myself having to constantly justify my intense dislike of the new Disney remakes as not stemming from the same well of hatred as the moronic #notmymermaid crew. My objection to the Disney remakes is not at all because of their laudable progressiveness, it’s despite that. In this case, the necessity to correct Dumbo’s retrograde attitude towards animal cruelty should probably have been a reason not to try and remake it at all, rather than finally bestowing the ethically viable conclusion on creatures that look like Pacman mated with a seacow.


18. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

After my first viewing of Tim Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I awarded it a pitiful one and a half stars. As I sat down to watch it last night for the first time in nearly twenty years, I wondered if I’d been a bit harsh. After all, the opening half hour seemed like a reasonable variation on the inadequate but fitfully charming Dahl adaptations of yesteryear. Decent Sunday afternoon fare, I thought, if hardly world-beating then surely worth a bit more than a measly star and a half. And then Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka arrived and the whole terrible ordeal came flooding back.

At the time of writing, the once universally praised Dahl has become a controversial figure ripe for reassessment. But the problematic views of the author himself, even those that managed to creep into his children’s books, cannot take away the fact that Dahl came up with terrific stories and wrote deliciously absorbing prose. One of the reasons I’ve rarely thought film adaptations of Dahl’s work have lived up to their sources is that it’s impossible to reproduce the thrill of reading long, florid rhapsodies about fantastical varieties of sweets by simply showing the thing as an object on screen. Few actors could capture through expression and movement the tangible feelings of excitement, disappointment, anticipation and pleasure that Dahl’s descriptions of Charlie’s quest for the Golden Ticket encapsulate. That’s why the purest and most effective Dahl adaptation is still Rik Mayall reading George’s Marvellous Medicine on Jackanory, bringing his inimitable talents to the reading of the text without losing any of Dahl’s irreplaceable wordsmithery.

Although news of a Tim Burton adaptation of one of Dahl’s greatest works didn’t fill me with hope for that elusive definitive Dahl film, I was pleased to see that he had at least put the title back from the 1971 version’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Not only is that title change in too much of a rush with its alliteration, blowing it like a wolfed-down Wonka Bar in the first two words instead of savouring that beautifully-spread syllabic rhyme of Charlie and Chocolate, but it also incorrectly places the focus squarely on Willy Wonka instead of our real protagonist, Charlie Bucket. Unfortunately, Burton’s film fixed the title alone, and once Depp’s Wonka arrives it feels as if Charlie might as well just go and have a lie down until the end of the film. I suppose if you’re going to chew the scenery, Wonka’s 98% edible factory would be the best place to do it, but Depp force feeds himself to the almost immediately exhausted audience like Wonka Fudgemallow Delights down Augustus Gloop. By this stage, Depp had bagged his Oscar nomination for his interminable show-off turn in Pirates of the Caribbean and that overstated camera-hogging seemed to be infecting his performances more frequently. His Wonka is a loathsome, creepy, indigestible experience to sit through.

Though Depp’s egregious performance is what sticks in the mind the most, it’s difficult to tell just how much blame rests with Burton or his screenwriter John August for the mess that underscores that facepalm of a central turn. Burton and August had done a reasonable job at conjuring some gentle magic with their previous collaboration Big Fish but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels like it leans into all the wrong things about Dahl’s book at the expense of the better parts. Burton had talked about a conscious attempt to distance his film from the gentler whimsy of the 70s adaptation (of which, for the sake of balance, I should say I’ve never been much of a fan either) but in doing so he has pushed too far in the other direction. The titular chocolate factory has a laboratory-like clinical feel that infects the magic like bleach-filled bon-bons, while the choices regarding the Oompa-Loompas seem determined to revive the controversial history of these characters. For all the recent hyperbole about the updating of Dahl books to remove problematic material, Dahl himself did just that in the early 70s after the original depiction of the Oompa-Loompas as pygmies from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle” was deemed no longer acceptable. Burton’s film not only revives the backstory about a “savage” jungle origin but it then casts Indian-British actor Deep Roy as every single Oompa-Loompa, a visual trick that risks aligning itself with vicious stereotypes about interchangeability. Even without those questionable choices, the Oompa-Loompas are one of the most annoying parts of Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the effects used to reproduce Roy’s image looking cheap and the irritating songs they sing, ranging from Broadway Musical to Disco to Psychedelic Rock, being lamentable without exception and creating an uneven continuity that makes the film feel even more unwieldy.

It’s easy to forget when you’re complaining that Dahl adaptations don’t live up to their sources that many of Dahl’s books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory included, have fairly mean-spirited premises. Here, for instance, Dahl essentially assembles five children who epitomise things he hates and then subjects them to a series of horrific punishments, taking special care to point a finger of blame in the parents’ direction as he does so. The genius of Dahl’s writing is how he can sneak these premises past the reader’s better judgement by making them engaging and hilarious. Put them up on the screen though and, bereft of the influence of Dahl’s clever pen, they often become just plain nasty. And even Dahl, for all his whimsical evasions, couldn’t hide his more prominent prejudices, like his well-documented fat-phobia. That’s here for all to see in the character of Augustus Gloop who, to be fair to Burton, is a pivotal character who can’t really be cut. There is a hint of relevant commentary in the way Augustus represents thoughtless waste but it is not his wasteful attitude so much as his physique by which the characters, even the supposedly sympathetic ones, seem disgusted. There has to be a certain consideration of different times and different attitudes for both Dahl and Burton’s works (and if you think we were better than that by the 00s, try counting the fat jokes in Love Actually sometime) but this sort of prejudicial material lands with an especially pronounced thud in media aimed at children.

I grew up loving Dahl’s books and, despite their evermore prominently visible flaws, I still do. Everything dates to an extent but we have to find the right way to present outdated material to the modern audiences who deserve not to be deprived of the overall magic due to a handful of misfiring spells. In the case of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton and Dahl proved to be a less than ideal match, with their dual tendencies towards the grimly comedic ultimately bringing out the worst in both. It’s unlikely that anyone could’ve lifted this ugly little adaptation above the tawdry but Depp as Wonka just proved to be the crowning turd in the chocolate bar wrapper.

17. ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Alice in Wonderland is one of the strangest children’s classics ever written and as such it has spawned some very unusual films. Though some have incorporated a sense of bright whimsy, it is always the darker side of Lewis Carroll’s episodic absurdist nightmare that most fascinates. There is a coldness and genuine sense of unease to its sheer madness, spawning such bleak visions as Jan Svankmajer’s Alice and Gavin Millar’s Dreamchild. Such twisted lineage would seem to suggest that Tim Burton would be an ideal inheritor of the responsibility of keeping Alice’s adventures alive on screen but Linda Woolverton’s screenplay for this curious sequel-of-sorts seems to completely misunderstand the tone of Carroll’s work and Burton’s determination to lean into its misjudged fantasy quest narrative with a wonkily defined tone and CGI heavy aesthetic only makes it even curioser.

There’s a fundamental flaw in Alice in Wonderland’s premise of the inhabitants of Wonderland (or Underland, as it becomes here) orchestrating the return of Alice in order to overthrow the Red Queen and slay the Jabberwocky. The notion that they remember her at all seems like a betrayal of the original story, in which the characters either treat her as a passing distraction or else mistake her for other people. They are too wrapped up in their own madness (and absolutely everyone in Carroll’s Wonderland is genuinely mad) to commit anything or anyone so trivial to memory. They flit from one thought to the next, following paths of cockeyed logic that take them further and further from their original points. Ask them about Alice even a minute or two after her departure and they’re most likely to echo Roy Chubby Brown’s 90s song-ruining sentiment: “Who the bleep is Alice?” This being the case, it’s very hard for anyone who has encountered previous incarnations of Alice’s adventures to really buy into the idea of these characters forming a united front against tyranny and Woolverton and Burton struggle to create a tone that can convincingly combine Carroll’s verbose anarchy with an emotional centre. No successfully realised version of the Mad Hatter should be having an “I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow” moment with anyone, least of all a girl with whom he fleetingly took tea over a decade ago.

Though it is sometimes lumped in with the barrage of live action and photorealistic Disney remakes that followed, Alice in Wonderland predates those lamentable zombifications by several years and feels markedly different from their evermore faithful, and thus evermore pointless, retreads. This is very pointedly a sequel rather than a remake, but a sequel to the Alice stories by Carroll rather than the Disney animation. It doesn’t succeed in this ambitious aim but we can at least applaud its ambition in attempting something different, especially in a climate where we’ve had to watch artless hands violently wring all the charm out of Simba and still somehow make billions of dollars. Still, there’s no accounting for taste and Alice in Wonderland itself became an early billion dollar success, making Burton’s take on Wonderland iconic to a certain generation. To me, it’s always looked a bit too garish and ugly, although kudos to Burton for attempting something as peculiar as the source text, even if it doesn’t quite come off.

After their brilliant performances in Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter struggle to bring much to the characters of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen. Depp is all over the place, making the character too hard to get even a momentary grasp on, which is detrimental when the film starts asking us to form an emotional attachment to him. Bonham Carter, meanwhile, is pure pantomime, which in fairness is what the role seems to demand but it’s still only entertaining to an extent. The characters who fare better are those on the margins. Matt Lucas’s dual role as Tweedles Dee and Dum is a good mix of whimsy and grotesquerie, while Paul Whitehouse’s completely whacked-out March Hare is very entertaining, although his sparing use was a wise move.

Alice in Wonderland is an infinitely interesting text for adaptation because there are so many ways to come at it that every screen version feels very different from the last. For a billion dollar blockbuster, Burton’s version is at least unusual but its apparent suppressed ambition to be Lord of the Rings sees the characters utilised inappropriately and when those aspirations spill out in a climactic battle it feels like we’ve drifted much too far from the text. No wonder Mia Wasikowska’s oddly unknowable Alice wears a fixed perma-frown. The whole thing is very perplexing indeed.


16. PLANET OF THE APES

The long-term critical and fan reaction to Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes has been so abysmal that it’s easy to forget that the film was actually a commercial hit, even setting a few box office records on its initial release. But just because a lot of people went to see a film doesn’t mean a lot of people liked a film. Perhaps it is telling that so many of Planet of the Apes‘ records related to opening weekends, before word began to spread that the film was silly, confusing and very, very dull. I remember when the project was announced, I was disappointed that Burton had taken on a franchise in which I had no interest. I’ve since seen the original 1968 film and loved it but I was happy with that, feeling no desire to view its numerous sequels. But neither was I enraged about the notion of a new version, as many die-hard ape-heads were. So finally getting round to the 2001 Planet of the Apes, I went in with hopes that it would be better than its reputation, given the toxic hyperbole related to fanboy culture. What I got was a film that probably is technically better than its inevitably overstated reputation for awfulness, but I was honestly so bored that I ended up wishing it was a bit more ludicrous.

Burton trudges through standard Sci-fi Action Adventure tropes with the implied glazed expression of a journeyman director for hire. After Sleepy Hollow had arguably leaned in too hard to the expected Burton tropes, in Planet of the Apes the director feels invisible for perhaps the first time in his career. That needn’t be a bad thing but in this case the film feels bereft of a confident guiding hand. A Planet of the Apes reboot had been on the cards since the late 80s, passing through the hands of numerous big name directors before it landed at Burton’s feet. Burton said he had no interest in making a straight remake or a sequel to the original film, instead aiming for a reimagining of the concept. But for a director allegedly keen to distance himself from his predecessors, Burton’s Planet of the Apes certainly seems determined to remind us of them too. We’re barely twenty minutes in before someone delivers a variation on the famous “Damn dirty ape” line. Charlton Heston showing up in a cameo is surely a deliberate piece of fan service. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Burton in relation to the film’s forebears was how to end his film, given that the original Planet of the Apes ends with one of the most famous twists of all time. Since virtually everyone knows that twist, recreating it seemed pointless but the disappointment of repetition would perhaps only be topped by the disappointment of no equivalent climactic rug-pull. Ultimately, the one delivered by Burton and his trio of writers was deemed confusing and ridiculous by the majority of viewers but it’s not really that awful, merely a tired, slight variation on the original that makes some sense if you’re concentrating but requires too much elaborate setup to really be effective. Still, given that the expected sequels never arrived, it’s interesting that Planet of the Apes remains a mainstream blockbuster with an ambiguous downbeat conclusion.

Perhaps the best thing about Planet of the Apes is its BAFTA-nominated makeup by Rick Baker, Toni G and Kazu Hiro. The various species of ape mostly look great and the practical effects, as opposed to CG simians, are one of the telltale signs of Burton’s place in the director’s chair. But in some cases the makeup jobs fall short. Heston appeared to be wearing a half-finished Halloween costume, while Helena Bonham Carter and David Warner’s performances are rendered strangely mush-mouthed as they struggle against their frozen monkey death masks. There are some pleasures to be had. Paul Giamatti’s character Limbo is an enjoyably unpleasant piece of comic relief, with Burton and Giamatti both agreeing to excise the screenplay’s call for an eleventh-hour redemption in favour of just letting Limbo remain as low-down as his name suggests. And whoever managed to get Charlton Heston to deliver a speech about the incompatibility of firearms and human cruelty at around the same time he was defending gun laws in the wake of Columbine deserves at least a ripple of applause. But ultimately Planet of the Apes remains an odd failure in the Burton catalogue, further overshadowed by the successful job of the more inventive subsequent reboot.

15. FRANKENWEENIE

Frankenweenie is a rather strange film built on a couple of interesting historical contradictions. It is based on a 1984 film of the same name that Tim Burton made when he was working for Disney. As it turned out, Disney deemed the film unsuitable for its target audience and used this as evidence that Burton was wasting company resources on untenable projects. He was fired for his trouble. Jump forward in time nearly thirty years and Disney were hiring the now-famous Burton to create a feature-length version of the film that got him fired in the first place. Burton had been part of a group of young animators who came to Disney in the 70s and got their first big credit working on The Fox and the Hound. This new school of creatives, which included the likes of John Lasseter and Brad Bird, found themselves at odds with the Disney old guard over their refusal to kill off the old hunting dog Chief, a plot point on which the whole emotional centre of The Fox and the Hound hinged. In the end, the veterans won and Chief’s death was downgraded to a broken leg, which gave The Fox and the Hound’s plot a broken back. But when it came to making his short film Frankenweenie, Burton too refused to end with a dog’s death even though the story clearly demanded it. Decades later and the feature length Frankenweenie also ended with a cheap dog resurrection instead of an emotionally resonant lesson on accepting death, which is what the entire plot seems to be driving at even more strongly the second time round. For all his youthful determination as a young Disney artist, Burton still didn’t learn to kill the dog when you have to.

Despite its disappointing final beat, the original Frankenweenie short is a little gem. Its simple premise involves a suburban remake of Frankenstein in which the monster is replaced by a young boy’s recently run-over dog. The Frankenstein story takes place in miniature, with the local outrage at the dog’s resurrection leading to an ingenious finale built around a windmill at a miniature golf course. Across 30 minutes the story works well but Burton and screenwriter John August obviously felt they needed to flesh it out a bit more for a film three times that length. Unfortunately, the expansion of Frankenweenie inevitably comes at the expense of its charming simplicity and tight focus. The Frankenstein references are jumbled up with numerous other classic Horror allusions and the emotional heart of a classic boy-and-his-dog story gets trampled in a more convoluted tale of a school science fair which ends up in a whole barrage of undead animals roaming the streets. The original Frankenweenie retold an old story with a new twist and retained its considerable charm, whereas the remake adopts an unfortunate tendency of modern mainstream animation to waterboard the audience into submission with references, gags and crazy ideas. The fact that Burton’s reference points are 30s Horror films rather than internet culture and Gangnam Style does not make the approach any less off-putting.

The animation in Frankenweenie is as smooth and effective as you’d expect from a Burton production but this is the first animated film to which he has put his name that feels like it’s missing the heart. This might’ve been rectified to some extent with the right ending but the few truly effective moments of Victor mourning the loss of Sparky are swallowed up by the increased focus on the weirdo children preparing for the science fair, their various creations ultimately marginalising the dog who is so crucial to the audience’s emotional response. Like the tenuously held-together Sparky, Frankenweenie ultimately just feels stitched together from bits and bobs that Burton thought were cool. So we get an ominous science teacher who resembles Vincent Price and a Godzilla-like turtle, the set-up for which involves a Japanese student called Toshiaki whose stereotypical portrayal some have found problematic. Given the ragbag of oddballs that make up Frankenweenie’s supporting cast, I can give this comedic exaggeration a pass but it is unsurprising that the character has been retrospectively re-examined in light of Burton’s subsequent boneheaded comments on diversity and representation. But Frankenweenie is basically a collection of extreme types offset by the blandly ordinary suburban family at its centre. He may bring his pulverised pooch back to life but Victor is pretty much a blank slate when it comes to personality, while his classmates are walking pop culture references. It doesn’t make for compelling viewing after the initial rush of recognition wears off.

As an animation lover and a fan of the original short film, it breaks my heart to rate Frankenweenie so low but unlike The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, this film never comes to life and its wonky plot and black and white cinematography just end up feeling like inadequate band aids failing to hide the detrimental narrative shortcomings of a project that feels misconceived from the very start.

14. SLEEPY HOLLOW

When Tim Burton’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow first came out, we all went “Of course, what a perfect match of director and material” and headed for the cinema rubbing our hands in anticipatory glee. And at the time it seemed like a very good film. It’s the curse of retrospect that has cast Sleepy Hollow in a less favourable light for me, for this is the moment when it feels like Burton’s career became more about matching himself up with existing source material that someone thought could be made a bit Tim Burtony. “Ooh, wouldn’t Tim Burton do great things with Planet of the Apes?” “Ooh, imagine a Tim Burton Roald Dahl adaptation.” “Ooh, Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll. Surely a match made in Heaven.” I’m sure this is a reductive take on how directors find their projects but Sleepy Hollow definitely feels like a turning point where Burton started taking on more well-known properties rather than working with original ideas either by other writers or based on his own concepts. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t do good things with some of his future adaptations or that he’d not proven himself in that area previously with characters like Batman and Pee-Wee Herman. But it feels as if a lot of the subjects for 21st century Burton films were chosen by reaching for a big binder marked Creepy/Surreal/Gothic. For the first time, Sleepy Hollow felt like a Tim Burton film in which what most audience members expected was almost exactly what they got.

Sleepy Hollow looks beautiful, I’m not going to deny that. But it looks beautiful in the same way throughout. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography swathes everything in a standard goth grey whether day or night and the jagged trees and fog-beset forest clearings are exactly what you think they’ll be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, given that fans of Burton’s style will be pleased to see a version of the visual aesthetic with which they fell in love in the first place, but it is kept in much tighter check than in more invigoratingly loose predecessors. Perhaps after the madness of Mars Attacks!, a more sober counterpart was required and Sleepy Hollow was frequently called a “return to form” but in retrospect Mars Attacks! feels like the more exciting proposition. Sleepy Hollow is stately, ordered, coherent and just a wee bit dull. Susie Figgis has assembled an impressive cast for Burton but, as with Mars Attacks!, the majority of them are there to be quickly killed off before they’ve had much chance to make an impact. The remaining cast members struggle to bring the required emotional connection to the story. Christina Ricci is stiff, Marc Pickering gives one of those child performances that feel like the best actor in the school play and Miranda Richardson is at least having fun but her increasingly lascivious turn undermines the gravitas of the film’s final act. Johnny Depp, in his third collaboration with Burton, is beginning to slide into that spotlight-hogging ham that would soon see him stagger to a bewildering Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean.

A major problem with Sleepy Hollow is Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay, from a story developed with Kevin Yagher. Like many Sleepy Hollow adaptations, it feels the need to add meat to the bones of Washington Irving’s short, ambiguous tale, but in doing so it becomes mired in cliche and repetition. Depp’s Ichabod Crane is given a tragic backstory, flashbacks of which causes him to wake up with a scream on three different occasions. He faints from fright even more times, a consistent character beat given the situation but still tedious to witness over and over. Perhaps a more inevitable issue is that of taste. In a film that involves serial decapitation, a strong stomach is obviously required and Burton juggles comedic head-choppings in which the lopped cranium spins on its stump with more disturbing moments. One scene in which a child listens to his parents being murdered from under the floorboards is especially troubling and I recall a friend of mine saying Burton had gone too far in the moment the mother’s severed head rolls across the floor and stops in a position that makes it look like it is peeping through the cracks at her newly-orphaned offspring. For my money, this is a well-done set-piece and though Burton balks at showing us the child’s inevitable fate onscreen, it draws a line in the dirt for how necessarily dark Sleepy Hollow is willing to go. Unfortunately it then crosses that line in a very 90s manner.

Richardson’s fate in the final reel is not only to be carried off to Hell by Christopher Walken’s Horseman but also to be kissed against her will in a manner so vicious that his sharp teeth make her mouth bleed. As he gallops into the underworld with her as his prisoner, the implication is that there is more, and worse, to come. This sexual-assault-as-comeuppance trope was not uncommon in the 90s, usually in bad taste comedies where villainous men were left contemplating their fate at the hands of a burly new cellmate. Sleepy Hollow doesn’t use it as the source of a cheap laugh but is it even more problematic when the suggestion is that it’s some form of sombre justice? It all depends where you draw your own line and I’m not sure what it says about me that I drew it one side of morally-approved rape and the other side of implied sword-based infanticide. Either way though, it never sat well with me even in the toxic context of a late-90s teenage boy.

Sleepy Hollow isn’t entirely about surface-level nastiness. There is an attempt to introduce something deeper, with the recurring symbolism of the red bird and the themes of science and reason vs. religion and superstition. In one sense, the film keeps an open-mind to both sides of the debate, chastising Ichabod for his cold rationalism as much as it decries the injustices of those punished based on the unsupported beliefs of others. But the film drops the ball by starting with a prologue that clearly depicts the harmful effects of antiquated practices on the justice system and then presenting us with a supernatural scenario that validates the tyrants as much as it decries them. The conclusion seems to be aiming to suggest a combination of rational thinking and spirituality would create the ideal balance but it barely walks the line between compromise and cowardice. Ultimately, with such a messy thesis struggling to support a threadbare plot, all the Hammer Horror influences in the world can’t save Sleepy Hollow from crumbling under the weight of its own superficial misjudgement.

13. MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

I remember when Tim Burton’s adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ Fantasy novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children first came out, I was slightly put off not so much by the lukewarm critical reception as the oft-repeated criticism that it had a very difficult plot to follow. Though it’s not my favourite genre, I have a certain level of tolerance for Fantasy provided the stories don’t become too unwieldy. Generally, when people start to talk about “world-building” in relation to a franchise, I get the hell out! So when I eventually got round to watching Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for the first time, I was surprised and delighted to find I was following the plot quite easily. Given that I sometimes lose the thread with even the simplest of Fantasy stories, my excitement at my own comprehension caused me to slightly overrate the film. To be sure, there’s a lot going on in this story but if it has your full attention there’s enough exposition (admittedly clunky in several cases) to keep you up to speed. The problem is when your attention wanes and this time round it did so quite quickly. While I recalled the plot well enough that I could still follow it, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children revealed itself to be a better first-watch experience than a candidate for repeat viewings. The amount of time the plot spends explaining itself becomes dull when you already know the details, while the excitement of discovering the various peculiarities of the titular children has the same single-watch limitations as an X-Men film to a comic book novice.

I don’t dislike Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Although it looks considerably more expensive, it has the air of one of those Sunday night BBC Narnia adaptations I grew up watching. It has the same combination of mannered eccentricity with horrific undertones which works wonders at giving kids the willies in a way that also makes them want to come back for more. Older pre-teens will probably love Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, having just the right amount of uncynical magic left in them while also the capacity to digest and appreciate more complex storylines. But the film seems to be straining for classic status in a way that remains just out of its reach. The wonderful Eva Green has been kitted out beautifully as the titular headmistress and she gives a fine performance pitched somewhere between twinkling wonder and ominous mystery. But the film gives her surprisingly little to do and her poised, caring but insistent shepherding of her charges becomes wearyingly familiar very quickly. With a better script than Jane Goldman’s fitfully interesting but flabby pass, Green might have skirted the edges of iconography instead of plummeting into the cold dregs of pseudo-Poppins.

As can often be the case with child-heavy casts, the rest of the performances are mixed. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has a ton of great character concepts but it fails to really do much with them, despite an overlong two hour plus runtime. Ella Purnell is suitably otherworldly and troubled as the featherlight Emma, which makes her romantic pairing with the rather drab Asa Butterfield all the more perplexing. Their burgeoning attraction is teased repeatedly in moments where they are forced into close proximity but the effect is more uncomfortable than sweet. Pixie Davis is once again bunged in a cutesy role that affords her no opportunity to expand on her formative brilliance in Outnumbered, while Finlay MacMillan is just awful as the possessively jealous Enoch, the film’s drabbest and most repetitive character despite his unusual ability to reanimate the dead. Samuel L. Jackson’s cloudy-eyed villain feels like he’s been transplanted from another film, perhaps because of that troubling lack of diversity on which Burton’s films have lately been called out and which seems even more conspicuous in a film so focused on differences.

The juxtaposition of the film’s drab reality on a small Welsh island and the vibrant but doomed wartime world inside a time loop is quite well realised through Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematographic juxtapositions and a certain amount of adventuresome excitement is enhanced by flitting between them. But the switch in tone in the final act feels a bit too whiplash-inducing, with the arrival of Jackson’s incongruous villain completely changing the film’s direction. Still, it also kick starts a bit of action after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between whimsy and exposition, so the change isn’t entirely unwelcome. In the end, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children does work as a decent evening’s entertainment but it is baggy enough that attempts to relive its pleasures through memory result in an aching brain unable to piece together the highlights, and sadly a rewatch downgrades even those. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children emerges as a film that seems to know the makings of a classic children’s adventure but can’t quite put them together convincingly.

12. BIG FISH

There’s a moment in Big Fish where Albert Finney tells a long joke. It’s a very old joke, the kind of thing dear old Ronnie Corbett used to tell from his big chair on that darkened stage. But even if you know the punchline, Finney tells it so entertainingly that the joke doesn’t get boring. That’s part of what Big Fish is about, how it’s not the stories we tell but the way we tell them that matters. Big Fish imparts its numerous fantastical stories with that occasionally overbearing folksy twinkle that was so prevalent in the 90s. It already felt dated even in 2003 when the film came out but for those of us who grew up on those films whose trailers were narrated by what seemed to be the fey brother of the gravelly-voiced “In a world…” guy, this was like syrup-drenched catnip. But there’s also a tendency inherent in that narrative voice towards patronising overexplanation. Again, it is encapsulated in Finney’s joke scene, in which he explains the joke seconds after delivering the self-evident punchline. It’s intended to add comic effect through its very redundancy, but Big Fish hinges on the notion that Finney’s character is an exceptional storyteller, and even a mediocre raconteur knows that the most surefire way to kill a joke is by explaining it.

Big Fish was only a modest success after Tim Burton’s previous blockbuster smash Planet of the Apes but history rarely remembers it that way. Most people remember Planet of the Apes as a bomb and Big Fish as a return to form. Though financially that was not the case, the differing levels of success in storytelling between the two films has led us to modify how we tell the story of Burton’s career too. After three comparatively cold films on the trot, Burton tries to find the heart again in Big Fish. With the themes of fractured father/son relationships, it became a very personal project for the director who had recently lost both his parents. Screenwriter John August, who enthusiastically convinced Columbia to purchase the film rights to Daniel Wallace’s novel before it was even published, also had a history of a distant, troubled relationship with his father which he struggled to mend before his death. So there are a lot of hefty emotions tied up in Big Fish right from the off. But its repeated use of symbolism and allegory proves to be a mixed blessing, tapping into the sentiment at a surface level but keeping it at arms length in the same way as its protagonists do to varying extents. Edward Bloom’s life stories are endearing, old-fashioned pieces of whimsy and the multiple-narrator structure clicks neatly into place like a puzzle, revealing more interesting depths as it progresses. But when the emotional climax arrives, I remained dry-eyed largely because the prolific yarn-spinning had suffocated the subtext. When I lost my own Dad in 2020, the only chasm that needed repairing was my own broken heart so perhaps my own experiences simply aren’t close enough to the relationship at the centre of Big Fish. Then again, a film like this really ought to know better than any the importance of transcending those differences in experience in order to spin an emotionally satisfying yarn. This is something that, for my money, Big Fish never quite manages to do. Its tall tales are charming but its emotional through-line flounders.

Once again, Burton has an impressive cast with whom to work but not a lot for them to sink their teeth into. Although he spends most of the film narrating from his deathbed, Finney probably fares the best but he and Billy Crudup never really convince as a father and son. Their pivotal bust-up is undersold and their scenes together are awkwardly written and tentatively performed. On Finney’s part, this is because his role cannot allow him to break free of the storyteller guise for even a second but it leaves Crudup with very little to play with. One scene that was widely used in the promotional campaign finds Crudup explaining the concept of the phrase “the tip of the iceberg” as if he’s just coined it himself. These disappointing sequences fail to build up the required emotional weight for the film’s payoff, which tends to mean I walk away from Big Fish feeling a little unsatisfied. But that’s not to say I haven’t had a good time along the way too. The old-fashioned fairy tale romanticism of the stories within the story make for engaging episodes, allowing Burton to explore a wider palette than the dingy greys of Sleepy Hollow. There are giants and werewolves and witches, spooky forests and hidden towns, love and war, unscrupulous ringmasters and desperate bank robbers. It’d be churlish to complain that Burton had offered us too little, even if once again he opens himself up to charges of providing surface beauty with inadequate emotional grounding.

From a 2024 point of view, Big Fish might seem a little old-fashioned in its depiction of different body types as inherently otherworldly, in its largely uncritical attitudes to the captivity of circus animals and in its depiction of what basically amounts to harassment as romance. But I think to criticise Big Fish for these things misses the fact that the film is deliberately adopting the style of old-fashioned storybooks and to do so effectively it needs to lean into classic fairy tale Americana. While some would argue that the perpetuation of harmful tropes is indefensible, Burton’s film addresses them in a very particular way, placing them in the mouth of a specific character whose whole personality is defined by the narrative building blocks of yesteryear. In this respect the real-world through-line, though it arguably fails on its own terms, succeeds in setting up the necessary context for us to enjoy an outdated mode of fantasy storytelling. Without them being placed in the mouths of these characters, Big Fish’s colourful vignettes would probably have stood the test of time much worse. But in this context, these issues rarely occurred to me at all.

Despite a little bit of swearing and some mild bawdiness, Big Fish feels like the kind of film that would find its most appropriate home as an early afternoon weekend TV matinee. Although it has a ton of ideas and some well-executed moments, it falls short of the sort of cinematic grandeur the premise required in order to make it truly special. Still, after the facelessness of his Planet of the Apes reboot, it was good to see Burton making a smaller, more inventive film again and the results were sweet, fitfully great and always thoroughly watchable.

11. MARS ATTACKS!

It’s a tall order to make a hundred-million-dollar B-movie. Part of what we find charming about B-movies is the limitations they’re necessarily working with. To attempt to capture that appeal but with a huge budget and a cast of A-list stars at your disposal ought to be the ultimate act of hubris. In the case of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, sometimes this ambitious concept feels misguided but there’s also an oddly alluring audacity and a cold mean-spiritedness that Burton leans into so heavily that it starts to actually work. Sci-fi B-movies weren’t the only influence here. The bigger budget Disaster movies of Irwin Allen were also on Burton’s mind. Those films were populated with big names who invariably played second fiddle to the central disaster and, in keeping with the surprisingly unforgiving tone of Jonathan Gems’ screenplay, Mars Attacks! highlights the expendability of star power by introducing one of the most incredible ensemble casts ever assembled and then calmly beginning to kill them off almost immediately. Films like The Towering Inferno set up storylines for their characters that continued as they dealt with the more pressing issue of the disaster at hand, so you’d get Fred Astaire wistfully talking about the whimsicality of life as the flames licked his tap heels. In Mars Attacks!, the minute the Martians arrive several potential lead characters are abruptly killed, emphatically putting a full stop on the story the script seemed to be priming them for. Whether you enjoy Mars Attacks! or not may very well hang on whether you find the notion of securing a slate of A-listers and then pissing them away with a series of shock deaths hilarious or frustrating. The film’s odd, fairly unique tone seems to be hoping you’ll feel both ways simultaneously.

Amongst the initially baffled critical responses to Mars Attacks!, there were several reviewers who considered it failed satire but I don’t think Burton is aiming for anything so profound. Satire generally has to have a point of view and Mars Attacks! sets up Liberals and Conservatives for equal ridicule, with gung-ho blood-lust and compassionate tentativeness proving equally ineffectual. Try and take these Martians on and you’re likely to be shrunk down and stepped on. Give them the benefit of the doubt and your still-living severed head may come to regret it. Being played by Rod Steiger or Pierce Brosnan is no protection. When the source material for your film is a trading card series, character and plot are not likely to be high on the agenda. One thing Burton succeeds in replicating is the experience of rifling through your new pack of cards to find which ones you like best. The film leaps between characters like an easily bored kid with a universal remote. There’s a sense that we don’t stay focused on any one character for too long because they’re largely quite hollow and unlikable, and while this emotional disconnect does result in a very low-stakes type of Disaster movie, it also makes for a deliciously reprehensible exercise in the most extreme schadenfreude. Who’s going to go next? We don’t care, we just want to see scorched skeletons again.

While it’s fun to see all those famous faces in purposefully undemanding roles, some casting decisions work better than others. Jack Nicholson has the perfect wearied gravitas as the US President but there was really no need to also cast him as the obnoxious casino owner and developer Art Land. In the latter role, Nicholson goes too hard with the goofiness, giving an intentionally campy performance that clashes with the film because it seems to be saying “aren’t B-movies shit?” rather than regarding their shortcomings with the affection that is elsewhere detectable even beneath Mars Attacks!‘ multiple layers of nastiness. Danny DeVito, meanwhile, is asked to do that Danny DeVito thing. Y’know, the thing that has consistently blinded audiences to what a brilliant actor Danny DeVito actually is. Annette Bening appears to be on the cusp of a good performance, if only her character wasn’t so thinly defined. Faring better are Pierce Brosnan’s pipe-smoking professor and Sarah Jessica Parker’s TV host and part-time dogsbody, whose doomed romance is one of the film’s strangest little tangents. Lukas Haas’s brave teen gives us someone to root for amongst the human detritus, with his desperate drive to save his Grandma being one of the few emotionally involving sequences in the film. Meanwhile, Tom Jones playing himself proves to be a surprisingly effective reluctant hero. But in a film with no other really great performances, it is Lisa Marie who stands out in a stunning turn as a statuesque Martian woman. The way she moves and her glazed expressions are phenomenally successful at portraying the difficult visual concept of a Martian spy in the guise of an out-of-this-world babe. It’s one of the best sequences in the film and Marie ended up featuring prominently in the promotional artwork.

One of Mars Attacks!’ major triumphs is the Martians themselves. Cackling, anarchic, perma-frowning little bastards, they were created by Industrial Light & Magic after a test reel convinced Burton to abandon his initial plans for deliberately antiquated stop motion effects in favour of computer animation. The result is as if someone cross-bred Minions with Gremlins and threw it really hard at Independence Day. In retrospect, it’d be easy to take Mars Attacks! for a parody of that latter film but it was in fact released in the same year, in the same manner that 1964’s deadly serious Cold War thriller Fail Safe was released in the same year as Dr. Strangelove’s comedic take on the same subject. While its more crowd-pleasing, hopeful and patriotic take predictably made Independence Day the bigger hit, Mars Attacks! is much more forthcoming in portraying the alien threat. The designs of the Martians, heavily based on their trading card equivalents, are instantly unforgettable, their comic edge balanced by the unforgiving carnage they are willing to create at a moment’s notice. It’s hard to imagine such bold villains having existed alongside the more earnest human characters of Independence Day but the emptiness of the majority of Mars Attacks!’ Earth dwellers does make for some slightly dull stretches. The film is undoubtedly at its best when it is focusing on scenes of mass death and destruction and the largely feeble character beats do mostly fall flat once the novelty of star spotting runs out.

Burton’s early career was often marked by accusations of visual flair that lacked heart and Mars Attacks! is the clearest example of this. Having made Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood by this stage, Burton perhaps felt he had shown his emotional side existed sufficiently that he could really lean into something proudly and deliberately cold and misanthropic. While for many this was what made Mars Attacks! unsuccessful, in another way it is also what makes it work. For those looking for an antidote to President Bill Pullman’s rousing, flag-waving oratory, an evening in the company of Mars Attacks! will thoroughly zap that syrup clean out of you.


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