Strange Characters: The Cinematic Pairings of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp

5. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

This film and the next one could change places depending on my mood. I probably switched them back and forth a dozen times while I was drafting this. Burton’s dark and atmospheric version of the Washington Irving tale reimagines Depp’s Ichabod Crane as a police inspector instead of a school teacher.  With his feet firmly planted in the realms of fact and science, he is sent to investigate a series of grisly murders in the town of Sleepy Hollow.  While purists may bellyache about changing Crane’s profession, I feel like this is still one of Burton’s best films.  The beheadings, while gruesome, are often depicted with a sardonic flair.

4. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005)

Burton co-directs his first feature length stop-motion film (guys, he did not direct The Nightmare Before Christmas) and does a splendid job of presenting the afterlife as a vibrant place in contrast with the stuffy Victorian world of the living.  It’s kind of the exact opposite of what he did in Alice in Wonderland.  Everyone is at the top of their game here.  For the first time in film, Depp does voice work.  He gives Victor Van Dort a voice of humble meekness. And Elfman’s score is fantastic, drawing inspiration from Beethoven all the way to Chick Corea.  The only complaint I have about this film is that it’s too short. I wanted to spend more time with these characters. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Before I saw this, I had no idea films like this could be made.  A slasher-musical helmed by Burton?  That’s the dream! I recommend it, but with a caveat.  A lot of blood is spilled.  I’m talking gallons.  That said, the prospect that at any moment a character might break out into song makes the bloodshed seem somehow less gruesome. Or maybe I’m just weird. Like in Beetlejuice and Sleepy Hollow Burton flexes his macabre humor muscles to their greatest potential.  Seeing what he does here makes Dark Shadows all the more disappointing in retrospect.

2. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

After proving himself with the box office successes of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton brought us this modern fairy tale. This is one of Burton’s most personal films, and it’s not hard to see why.  The wild-haired artistic outcast struggling to find his place in a world in which he doesn’t belong isn’t just a theme in many of Burton’s films; it’s a description of Burton himself.  How different would the world have been if the studio had gotten Tom Cruise to play the title character instead of Depp? That’s not a world I’d want to live in.  While the third act of the film does resort to a kind of nerd-revenge fantasy, I still love it.  I think this was actually the first Johnny Depp movie I saw. Part Frankenstein and part Beauty and the Beast, it’s one of Burton’s best and one of my favorite movies to watch around Christmas. On cold December nights, when the snow is just starting to fall, I still like playing this track.

1. Ed Wood (1994)

In his book Burton on Burton, Mark Salisbury describes Burton’s films as “live-action animated movies”, but this seldom seen film marked a change for Burton; it was his first biopic and his first R-rated film.  This is undoubtedly the best Burton/Depp movie and may even be Burton’s best film to date (It’s either this film or Big Fish). Depp plays Edward D. Wood, Jr, an outcast director struggling to become the next Orson Welles but never even getting in the same ballpark.  A biopic about a transvestite who is often lauded as the world’s word director shouldn’t be this inspiring, but it is and it’s not hard to see why. In Salisbury’s book, Burton says:

“One of the things I liked about Ed, and I could relate to, was being passionate about what you do to the point of it becoming like a weird drug. It’s like with any movie I’ve ever made, you get caught up in it; you’re there and you think you are doing the greatest thing in the world.  You have to think that.  But you thinking you’re doing the greatest thing in the world maybe doesn’t have anything to do with how the rest of the population perceives it.  So yes, I definitely felt and feel that way. Again, that’s why I admire Ed so much, and those people—he was doing something.”

The passion that Burton talks about is apparent in every frame and it’s infectious.  Every time I watch this, I’m inspired to create something.

Burton has been on the upswing since Frankenweenie and the fact that Burton has re-teamed with the writers of Ed Wood for Big Eyes makes me even more excited about the film. With missteps like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows out of the way, is it possible we’re entering a new golden age of Tim Burton films? I guess we’ll find out this Christmas.

Do you agree with my ranking of Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movies? Sound off in the comments below!

–Ross

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Strange Characters: The Cinematic Pairings of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp

  1. I do love Tim Burton but I must confess I’ve never seen Ed Wood. Not sure why. I think the fact it’s not a fantasy has probably got a lot to do with it (biased I know). But ignoring that I think I would agree with your list. Here’s a question – is one of these what you would consider the best film for either party? Personally I still think Beetlejuice is Burtons best. And for Depp? That’s a lot of films to wade through!

    • Thanks so much for your comment and that’s an excellent question! I have a soft spot for Beetlejuice and definitely think Burton needs to work with Michael Keaton again. I really believe that Burton’s best film is either Ed Wood or Big Fish. It’s interesting that you ask what I consider to be Depp’s best film because the original idea for this post was to rank my top five Johnny Depp films. While that is a lot of films to go through, I’d probably rank them something like this:

      5. Benny & Joon
      4. Finding Neverland
      3. Rango
      2. Ed Wood
      1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

      Of course, that leaves out great films like Blow, The Libertine, Dead Man and Pirates of the Caribbean. Ugh. Maybe I should rework it into a top ten list instead. :P

      -Ross

  2. I adore Johnny Depp, BUT hated his performance as a “chocolate maker”. Truth is I didn’t like the movie. Even the dwarfs were all wrong! “Model” didn’t look like a natural born dwarf, but a normal man who shrunk and accidentally hit the repeat button. The “difficult-dentist-dad” storyline didn’t convince me at all. Enjoyed reading your post!

  3. Reblogged this on awkward mix and commented:
    If you like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, this post is for you!

  4. Pingback: Dear Johnny Depp, | Eleventh Stack

  5. Pingback: Messrs. Riggs, Burton and Miss Peregrine | Eleventh Stack

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