Tim Burton: Finding Magic in Big Eyes, Big Ears, and The Peculiar

The films of Tim Burton are a part of me. He’s not even my favorite director by any stretch of the imagination, but I do respect his work. I’ve read books on him, and I’ve seen every movie. Starting with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, to Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands; his style made an imprint on my mind.

These were images, sets, and characters like nothing I had ever seen before. I had already gravitated to the man-child that was Pee-wee Herman, watching his playhouse every Saturday morning, playing with the action figures, and buying the stuffed dolls. It was easy for me to love and laugh at Big Adventure. It was Beetlejuice that truly had me take notice. It was strange. It was dark, original, and helped me develop a crush on Geena Davis. I was probably too young to see it the first time I did. Then Batman took off, putting a spin on the caped crusader like never before, and cementing a director that had made four fantastic movies in a row. That’s something that not many directors can say.

Then the dust settled. Burton made more great films in the coming years, arguably his best in Ed Wood, but then came critical flops such as Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes and the shine of Burton had seemed to wear off. Maybe audiences grew tired of the style? Or had Burton just become a massive sellout? Making Disney movies (Alice in Wonderland) with large budgets, too much CGI (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and no substance was where he drifted. Either way, things changed for Burton and his popularity faded. Although that love and general respect among film critics became damp, I’ve still gravitated to Burton’s entire body of work. Although few seem to notice, Burton has made three films in a row in the back half of his career, each one impressive, still flawed, but uniquely connected to the tall man from Burbank, California. Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and Dumbo has been a crescendo of cinema. Starting with doubt, running away to escape, and rising to top again, and it has all been done in the Tim Burton way.

Big Eyes — Hiding Behind the Eyes of an Artist

Amy Adams painting Big Eyes in Tim Burtons film

There’s a scene in Big Eyes where Margaret Ulbrich (played wonderfully by Amy Adams) is selling her art on a gravel path in San Francisco. A cacophony of artists surround her, each person passing her work by without a glimpse. Yet, it is the work of Ulbrich that is the most unique, entirely her own. The man selling his art next to her, Walter Keane (a slimy Christoph Waltz) expresses, “You’re better than spare change, shouldn’t sell yourself so cheap”, which Margaret responds with, “Oh, I’m just glad they liked it”. It’s in that moment where Tim Burton seems to be commenting on himself, wanting his work to be liked, but fighting not to sell himself in the process. In Big Eyes, Burton is the devil and the angel, both Keane and Ulbrich. He is the artist and the salesman. He is a magnificent painter of odd-looking children and also a fraud. Big Eyes seems to be the first film in his career where he is confronting this demon and in the process made one of the best films of his career.

Big Eyes is easily one of Burton’s most accessible films, called “strangely conventional” by Sheila O’Malley of, but a story ripe with controversy, and still made in Burton’s auteur style. It begins in suburbia, a woman escaping her husband, protecting her child, and doing things in her own courageous way. In her pursuit of freedom, however, she forgets herself, loses sight of what has made her special, and allows her greedy husband to take credit for her art.

The narrative of Big Eyes makes it impossible not to look at the subtextual psychologically, a window into the mind of all artists, and the struggle that pushes Burton to be himself. In any directors process of filmmaking, he/she is always searching to find that initial punch audiences got, and for Burton, it is no different. His is a style that separated him from the conventional, leading him to bigger budgets, larger scales, and more commercial productions. All of those goals still didn’t come without seeking the praise of critics and his peers. With more money came greater risks, with a higher chance for self-doubt, more money in his pocket, no doubt, but at what price? Who was this Tim Burton? What had he become? That’s why Big Eyes was an awakening, a new first step — starting with him brightening up his pallet and casting Amy Adams as his lead.

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane in Big Eyes looking in a mirror

You could mention that Big Eyes is lacking in shades of the gothic black and grey. You could mention that it was the first film void of death or the oddities of Edward Scissorhands, but the biggest change in Big Eyes was the absence of Johnny Depp. Burton had made five films in a row with the Pirates of the Caribbean star, and the two have made a total of eight films together. They are practically synonymous with one another, a bond that is part of Burton’s auteur style, but something that had become incredibly stale.

Big Eyes has Amy Adams and her performance is a vision, earning her a golden globe award, bringing Margaret Keane’s struggle to life, in her face, in her quiet strength. And in each Tim Burton film is a character that is representative of himself. He is Margaret Keane. A person that doubts their art, hiding behind the facades of makeup, and feeling the sting when critics call his work commercial. Then he turned a corner, making this fresh, bright film, California sunlit, with pastel-coloured sets, gorgeous costume design from Colleen Atwood, and that dash of Tim Burton strangeness in the eyes of the children in a Keane painting. The third act is where Margaret Keane finds the ability to stand up for herself, speak her truth, and be the artist that she always was. Big Eyes was a revival for Tim Burton’s career, but like any conflicted artist, he still needed to escape. He would find a fresh new place where outcasts such as himself could go. Burton would take his talents to the home for peculiar children.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Back at Home With All My Misfit Friends

Poster for Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children

Before Big Eyes, Burton directed Dark Shadows. Based on the 1960’s TV show, which lasted for six seasons, and he makes it in 2012 when general audiences had no idea the movie was even founded on something from prime-time television. It just looked like another Burton movie, once again starring Johnny Depp. Although the narrative of that film never gelled, the one thing that rose to the top was the performance by Eva Green, which was both deliciously wicked, and delightfully funny. You might call it a blessing in disguise.

Amy Adams rightfully had the role for Big Eyes, but Green had truly cemented herself as a muse for Tim Burton. Finding the right vehicle for Green did not take long, as Burton had read Ransom Rigg’s novel, about a home of children with odd-like abilities, and nobody better could play the title role of Miss Peregrine. Yet, similar to all of Burton’s films before, he would need to make sure the themes still aligned, telling a story that begins in the Florida suburbs, with mint-green homes, and follows a high school boy that always feels out of place. Asa Butterfield is Jake, a boy that grew up listening to stories from his grandfather (played by the legendary Terrence Stamp). Tales about a home off an island in Wales, with children that can float away, one that has bees in his stomach, or a headmistress with the ability to turn into a bird.

The character of Jake is the voice of Burton—a boy that wishes to be acknowledged. Noticed by his peers, his parents (Chris O’Dowd playing a perfect aloof father), or anyone who is just like him. Jake’s search becomes his journey to find that home, to discover if his grandfather’s stories are even true, taking him to a place of mystery, a bit of time travel, and running from haunting tentacled villains. This was another Tim Burton movie, yes, but a picture that combines all of the styles in Burton’s past works, while right in step with his new direction. It is the dark mixed with the colorful. It is a path between the past and the present. It’s disturbing in nature and whimsical like a fantasy. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might be the most fun Tim Burton has had since making Beetlejuice. And it shows.

It starts with a bigger cast of actors, including new faces that add energy to a Burton film. The likes of Samuel L. Jackson playing the villainous Barron—with teeth as sharp as razor blades, and Judi Dench, later adding her grace to any role she is in, all bringing a matter of respect to the film. It’s especially important to have the right cast when dealing with a story that involves time travel. Most movies, no matter how you slice it, have continuity, or paradoxical issues when time travel is involved. In Miss Peregrine’s story, the element of time travel is a major plot point, but evidently a constant argument in Tim Burton’s head. Does he want to stay in the past? I think that’s true. The majority of his films involve escape, an ability for him to get away from the things that disappoint.

Jake underwater

It’s not a far stretch to say that Burton wanted to escape the conventional ways of living, making it more apparent that Big Eyes was a new beginning. A reset to his career, allowing him to find room for a film of this nature. Having not read the source material, there still seems to be a bit of originality in Burton’s portrayal of this universe. He’s making a film with similar themes, but with a clearer mind of what he wants. If the Asa Butterfield character is a representation of Burton, then it makes sense. The person that Jake is at the beginning is timid, shy, afraid to get out of the doldrums of life. By the end, he is a leader, someone just as peculiar as the next person, both inside and out. Eva Green is his muse, but Burton is ready to take the baton and draw inspiration from everything that is a representation of his present.

What was interesting to me was how much more I enjoyed the Home for Peculiar Children on second viewing. Granted, I still think the third act is messy, but even that part makes sense when you study Burton’s influences. If you were going to compare it to any of Burton’s other films, the obvious answer is Edward Scissorhands. A welcoming home that takes in the peculiar person would certainly find a place for a man with cutting sheers for paws, but it’s not as in your face for Burton’s influences are in the details. Miss Peregrine’s home is similar to the castle where Edward was created, including massive topiary trees, and one character that likes to put hearts into things, which makes them come to life.

Along with similar details from past works, Burton uses most of his cast of production teammates, with costumes designed by Colleen Atwood, consistent editor Chris Lebenzon, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who had worked with Burton on his last three films, all bringing something to the table. What they have a grasp on are the things that inspired Burton as a director. Various scenes with claymation figures and an army of skeletons are direct reminders of Burton’s love for visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen. The climactic battle between the peculiar children and the long, slenderman-like creatures known as Hollows, all takes place at a theme park, reminiscent of classic films such as Carnival of Souls or Disney’s Pinocchio. Unlike Big Eyes, this is far from conventional, its spot-on Burton, made in his fresh new way. As for that ending taking place at a carnival, well that was just a hint from Burton on where he was headed to next, putting his own spin on the flying pachyderm—Dumbo.

Dumbo — Joining the Circus and Tearing It Down

dumbo movie cover

I think a few film critics and those that know the work of Tim Burton will see the irony in his production of Disney’s Dumbo. Others will be blinded by the glitz and glam. Critically panned and brushed aside by anyone who holds the 1941 version in their heart, this was not a movie that should have been expected to fly. There is already a major problem with Disney hoarding all of their properties and then re-doing them simply for the sake of adding money to their overflowing pile of profits. It is because this is only slightly like the others and because it has a sliver of originality to it, Dumbo might be one of the best of the Disney re-imagined bunch.

Burton takes his money and then puts his thumb in the eye of his financiers; making a story that is not entirely about the flying, floppy-eared elephant, but about a misfit circus family coming together, all at the expense of burning down the evil corporate machine. If there are constant complaints about the originality of Jon Favreau’s Lion King or the mangled re-creation of Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, so it’s odd to see that Disney for once let a director have creative inspiration for this version of Dumbo. It’s a combination of being lightly Disnified while being entirely Burton. The cast—filled with Burton regulars Eva Green, Michael Keaton, Danny Devito, and Alan Arkin; The sets grander than ever with large scale circus tents. The costumes once again beautifully constructed by Colleen Atwood and a score by Danny Elfman that could be some of his best work with Burton.

It also became Tim Burton’s most poetic film in years. Starting with Big Eyes, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and now Dumbo, there was a complete transformation of who this director is. Long gone are the weights of the Burton-Depp partnership. This was the unveiling of a Tim Burton we had never seen and a recharge of excitement for what movie will come next. Dumbo is not a gluttonous Tim Burton project (This is not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but it is a journey back in time when the circus wowed us as children, or the concept of a flying elephant was as believable as Santa Claus. The star of the show is Dumbo and Burton has him soaring higher than ever.

Before Dumbo could soar, Burton had to make sure he destroyed the very thing that was trying to create him. It’s extremely strange that anyone in Disney approved the final cut of this movie, but I am glad it was made. It’s not giving too much away, but the climax involves the entire group of Max Medici’s Traveling Circus bonding together to destroy the corrupt, greedy Dreamland amusement park. There lies the conflict of Tim Burton. He wants to make movies that harness his appreciation for stop-motion animation. Films with beautifully constructed sets, whimsical magic, and unique looking characters. All of that comes at a cost. He wants the luxury of making his films easily, without the criticism of being called a sellout. That’s why Dumbo is a story that suits him. He feels like a weirdo with big ears, some people laughing at him, critical of him for tripping over himself. In reality, he is a prime example of an artist. Someone that must take great risk, with the possibility that he might not actually fly. He might need a feather. Or maybe he just needs to let his true nature glide.

Dumbo the elephant with a sad clown face

While watching and writing about the last two films—Big Eyes and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—It was obvious which character was a representation of Tim Burton himself. Big Eyes was the Margaret Keane character, feeling like a phoney, pushed around by others, and afraid to stand up for her own work. In Miss Peregrine, it is Asa Butterfield’s Jake, a lonely boy, looking for his place, friends that can be just as peculiar as he is. In Dumbo, it took me quite a long time to find out which character was the representation. Was it Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the vaudevillian circus owner, hoping to come up with anything that will keep his traveling troupe afloat? Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), the once horse riding superstar that lost his wife, lost his arm in WWI, and then lost his pride to be a good father? Or maybe it is Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere? He’s the creator of a massive amusement park called Dreamland, filled with everything a child could want, including an attraction called Nightmare Island, floating elephant bubbles, and more glamour than a New York fashion week.

And in the end, it hit me. It was none of those people. It wasn’t a person at all. It’s the name up in lights—Dumbo. Here is a little boy that has his mother ripped away from him, with no clue as to why, and now finds himself divided between the two worlds of entertainment—the old school of entertaining people vs. this new wave of the future, an elephant soaring to new heights. This has always been the conflict for Tim Burton. He’s made movies with no risk, no budget, and had enormous success—Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice. He’s made movies with massive budgets and fallen flat on his face—Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s the main attraction for his films, expected to fly, and if he does not perform the audience is going to want their money back. This is what makes Dumbo Tim Burton’s consummate topper film; it’s a big scale production rooted in the past and flying off to a whole new level.

I might be in the minority of finding these last three Burton movies to be some of his best work. Many people will disagree. I am willing to step to the edge and take that leap. That’s what a great artist does.

Written by Leo Brady

Leo Brady is a Chicago-based film critic, member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and writer for the website

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