Rating The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Collaborations
by Matt Sills
This weekend’s release of “Dark Shadows” marks the eighth collaboration between director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. I’ve decided to take a look at their previous seven films together, and count them down from the worst to the best:
7. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY – It seemed like a match made in heaven: Tim Burton and this warped twisted tale of 4 horrible children, one gracious and deserving boy, a house of horrors candy factory and the mad man that runs it. Casting Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka just added the cherry on top of what should have been a Burton masterpiece. Oh how wrong it went. This is Burton at his laziest, with dull production design, usually a highlight of Burton films, and horrible music that seems to be left over from other, better films. He does very little to separate himself from the original film, even having the Oompa Loompas sing after each child is dispatched. The additions he did make to the story don’t add anything at all, as Wonka’s back story can’t do anything to make me more sympathetic to the character, especially when Depp’s performance is as creepy as it is. Depp’s Wonka is a shut in who alternates between the bi-polar personality of a snarky teenager and a pedophile. It was a rare misstep from an actor who usually makes the right choice, even if it’s a weird one. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is not only the worst movie on this list, but Burton’s worst film, and yes, I’m saying it’s worse than his remake of “Planet of the Apes”.
6. ALICE IN WONDERLAND – Another film that should have been right up Burton’s alley, but one that is botched up by an over reliance on visuals and not enough on story. Here, the ripping off of his own visual style is even more blatant. Look at that twisted tree Alice falls into the hole below. It looks exactly like the tree from Sleepy Hollow. Stayne’s outfit looks like it was stolen from Edward Scissorhands. While some of this film is pretty stunning to look at, it’s a lot of been there/done that, so really, you need a story that’s going to carry you through, and “Alice” just isn’t that story. Again, Burton and the writers try to add something to make the movie their own. Here, it’s Alice’s journey not only through Wonderland, but from a girl to a woman who can slay the Jabberwocky and stand up for herself. If that story had been carried throughout the entire film, it might have worked better, but Burton can’t figure out how to mix this coherent story with Lewis Carroll’s surreal original. Depp, for his part, does an excellent job as the Mad Hatter, bringing heart and humor to a movie that sorely lacks it when he’s not onscreen. It was tough picking between this and “Charlie” for their worse collaboration, but this gets the edge for not leaving me with a scuzzy feeling when I was done watching it.
5. CORPSE BRIDE – Burton had done animation before, as the creator of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, but this was his first time directing an animated film. It’s a bit of a trifle, coming in at only 75 minutes or so, yet still feeling a bit padded. There’s also an over reliance on Danny Elfman’s songs and score, which are starting to blend into each other from film to film. Overall, this story of a man who accidentally marries a dead woman is just OK. The animation, however, is absolutely gorgeous, and makes it worth the time you’ll spend watching the movie. Depp provides the voice of the groom, Victor Van Dort, and does a fine job. It’s a pretty insignificant film in Burton and Depp’s respective catalogs, but at least it’s a mildly diverting one.
4. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET – Burton takes on the classic Stephen Sondheim musical, and does a surprisingly excellent, and faithful, job of bringing it to the screen. Later era Burton has a tendency of being a lot of flash and style with very little story (see the bottom two films on this list). With “Sweeney Todd”, Burton leaves the story intact. He doesn’t try to add anything, but uses his talents as a director well versed in horror and the macabre to bring this bloody story to life. It’s proof that he’s a much better director and designer than storyteller. This all could have gone horribly wrong with the casting Johnny Depp as Todd. Who knew if Depp could actually sing these songs? But he can. He’s not the greatest singer in the world, but he sings like he acts: he inhabits the character and makes Todd’s singing voice an extension of the pain and madness the demon barber feels. It was a surprisingly powerful performance that garnered Depp an Oscar nomination.
3. SLEEPY HOLLOW – My vote for the most underrated Tim Burton movie, “Sleepy Hollow” is what happens when Burton goes for horror, and he succeeds brilliantly. This is his homage to the Hammer horror films, and while there are comedic elements, this one is pretty much played straight. While it has a lot of Burton’s design elements, the design is less about making it stand out in the audience’s mind than letting the design work for the overall story. Burton is also blessed with one of Depp’s best performances as Ichabod Crane, the New York police constable sent to the small Hudson River town to investigate some mysterious murders. Crane is having his beliefs tested, learning that these murders are being committed by supernatural forces. Depp is incredibly adept taking Crane from someone who believes that science can explain everything to someone who believes the impossible is possible. He plays the horror just as well as he plays the little comedic moments. It’s a shame more people didn’t take to this film when it was initially released. Luckily, it’s found a second life on DVD, and deservedly so.
2. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS – If there is something you can call the quintessential Tim Burton movie, this is it. Its genesis came from Burton himself, and the alienation he felt growing up in an LA suburb. He co-wrote the story, and had complete creative control of the production. The film mixes all of Burton’s influences, whether they be Gothic horror he watched as a child or the banality of living in a planned community. This personal feeling also leads to a soul that is missing from many of Burton’s films. There is more emotion in this film, whether it be the humor or the overwhelming sadness that permeates most of the movie, than in Burton’s entire catalog. But it’s not just Burton who is at the top of his game. Depp’s Edward says very little, but he doesn’t have to. His face says everything, portraying Edward’s love of Kim, or his sadness at the death of The Inventor, without ever having to say a word. It’s a beautiful, sad modern fairy tale that many have tried to duplicate, but have failed at.
1. ED WOOD – This may be the least “Tim Burton” film on the list, yet its by far the best. The film is a love letter to the cult director, known for his horrible yet beloved “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, whose influence on Burton is apparent. Let’s face it, “Mars Attacks!” was a Wood movie with a much bigger budget. This is stripped down Tim Burton. No flash, no “hey, look at this!” design. He relies on a great script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and the wonderful performances he gets from his actors. While Martin Landau’s Oscar winning role as Bela Lugosi gets most of the attention, its Depp who really anchors the film. His performance here is the exact opposite of his portrayal of Willy Wonka. You should want to spend time with Wonka at his factory, but he’s alternately mean and freaky. His Ed Wood on the other hand, could have been a strange, untalented man with bizarre fetish issues. Instead, he makes him a man with a dream who just happens to be a little different, and as an audience, we hope he actually succeeds at making the movies he wants to make, even though we know he won’t. It’s a wonderful little film, and not only the best on the list, but one of my favorites of all time.