Book Review: “Tim Burton” is an Approachable Guide to an Eccentric Filmmaker

Book Review: “Tim Burton” is an Approachable Guide to an Eccentric Filmmaker

Quick, name three Tim Burton films. Chances are you just mentioned Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, name Tim Burton’s highest-grossing movies. Did you come up with Batman, Batman Returns, and…Alice in Wonderland?

Growing up behind the Hollywood sign and aspiring to the Disney job that became his industry entree, Burton has always been trapped between his singular vision and towering franchises that find him alternately lost and lionized.

When Burton passes to his own personal afterlife, social media will light up with Winona Ryder GIFs while critical appreciations cite Ed Wood (his lowest-grossing feature ever) and Sweeney Todd — but it’s the oft-reviled Batmans and Alices and Charlies that have given him the power to get movies made.

One of the virtues of Ian Nathan’s concise 2016 survey Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work, now out in an updated edition that includes this year’s Dumbo, is that it invites readers to consider Burton’s films with respect to one another rather than in light of more immediate comparison points like earlier franchise entries. The 192-page book illuminates the themes, actors, and visual motifs Burton has returned to again and again over the course of 20 films.

The book is unauthorized, so there’s little unique information to be found here aside from Nathan’s lightly critical analyses. It’s illustrated with film stills and behind-the-scenes shots that complement the text but don’t add the kind of deep-dive rewards to be found in Nathan’s new Alien book.

Still, the author has diligently plumbed decades of coverage to pull telling quotes and key details about each of Burton’s movies. Nathan is not uncritical, but he convincingly argues the merits of under-appreciated films like Batman Returns (did you remember that it’s a Christmas movie?) and Sleepy Hollow.

If you’ve seen all 20, Tim Burton may not have much to offer you. If you’re a more casual fan, though, the book will inspire you to revisit longtime favorites and catch up on titles (Big Eyes, anyone?) you may have missed. Nathan connects Burton’s work to his placid but restless childhood, without delving too deeply into the mind of the man who’s continually poking his nose into creepy corners.

“I don’t find them dark,” says actor Eva Green, one of Burton’s recent go-tos, about his movies. “I find them funny and beautiful.” If you’re in the same camp, you’ll appreciate this insightful and accessible tour through one of cinema’s most singular minds.

Jay Gabler