LOS ANGELES — There was a time when Tim Burton was considered an exciting filmmaker, when his aesthetic seemed daring, inventive and unmistakably his own. But that seems like a while ago after seeing "Dark Shadows," his eighth collaboration with Johnny Depp and their weakest yet.
Still, as you know, we like to be glass-half-full around here. So while "Dark Shadows" feels like a visual and thematic recycling of Burton's previous work, it does give us the chance to look back on the director's five best films. Cue the Danny Elfman score:
"Edward Scissorhands" (1990): Burton and Depp's first film together and one that still strikes a wistful, poignant tone after all this time. I still can't decide whether this fairy tale is sweetly dark or darkly sweet. Either way, Depp is delicate and lovely as the misunderstood title character, the creation of an inventor who died before his work was complete, leaving Edward to fend for himself in the outside world with scissors for hands. While many initially fear him as a monster, he's actually a gentle creature who falls hopelessly in love with Winona Ryder's idealized, fair-haired teenager. Burton's candy-colored vision of suburbia finds just the right satirical tone, and the ending gets me every time.
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" (1985): Burton's first full-length feature easily remains one of his best. It's colorful and playful, constantly surprising and endlessly quotable, with Elfman's lively score perfectly complementing the film's non-stop escapades. Speaking of originality, there's the character of Pee-wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens' oddball man-child with the nasal voice and the too-tight gray suit who goes on a cross-country quest to find his beloved, stolen bike. He's so innocent and guileless, you're more likely to want to protect him than think he's creepy. And admit it: This is how you learned that there's no basement at the Alamo.
"Beetlejuice" (1988): The ultimate crystallization of Burton's signature style. The comic-horror tone he sets here provides the basis for comparison to everything else that followed. This movie is such a trip and such a blast. Michael Keaton (who would go on to be Burton's Batman) does some of the best work of his career here as the crass, wisecracking spirit who helps the newly deceased Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin haunt their own home. The effects look a little cheesy in retrospect but the subversive sense of humor remains firmly intact. "Beetlejuice" makes the macabre seem downright adorable.
"Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" (2005): One of only a handful of animated films Burton's made over his three-decade career — although a feature-length version of "Frankenweenie" is due out this fall — this is one of the best examples of the emotions of Burton's films matching the visuals. Combining painstaking stop-motion animation with digital technology, he's come up with a film that's wondrous, strange and poignant. Yes, it does look a lot like "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice," and it features an all-star voice cast led by Burton regulars Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but this medium brings these familiar details beautifully to life. Even creatures that are disgusting in reality are cute and sort of charming here.
"Big Fish" (2003): "If Fellini had directed 'Forrest Gump.'" That's how I described this movie when I reviewed it. Looking back, it seems like even more of a departure for Burton in that it's light and dreamlike, even hopeful. But as a fantastical tale, it absolutely makes sense within his oeuvre. He gets a little too carried away with the quirkiness of his characters, but his film is consistently dazzling, with some individual images that will take your breath away. And it features an excellent cast led by Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman. It's time for Burton to take more chances like this again.