While his artistic output is undoubtedly dark (and indeed gothic in the extreme at times), there is a deeply humanistic message that runs through the entirety of Tim Burton’s filmmaking oeuvre. In Burton’s imagination, so to speak, it is the connections that we make with other human beings that truly count in life. It’s worth taking a moment to look at a few of the director’s very best films to better understand how he expresses his own unique humanist philosophy.
1. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
Burton’s wonderful collaboration with the actor Johnny Depp would establish both men as cinema greats. While “Edward Scissorhands” is remarkably lighthearted at times, the film’s humanistic undertones bely its often mock-grotesque imagery. Like his primary influence Edward Gorey, Burton is fascinated with 19th-Century gothic literary tropes, and “Scissorhands” often seems like a picture book version of Edgar Allan Poe’s literary corpus deftly united with the gothic philosophy of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”
But there is more to the film than meets the eye. Take for example the symbolism inherent to the main character. He is a person with sharp blades for hands. Where other people take human contact for granted, in other words, Edward cannot get close to the people around him without seriously hurting them.
Through this simple visual metaphor, Burton expresses the idea that damaged people often inflict emotional pain on others whether they want to or not. In Burton’s universe, however, such people still deserve our love, respect, and acceptance.
2. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
This beloved animated tale is a Halloween favorite, but its storyline is far more complex than the film’s childlike exploration of holiday celebrations would have you believe. At its heart, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is the story of people who do not feel as though they fit in with society. For example, the film’s main character (Jack) spends nearly all of his time preparing for Halloween festivities. By the time we meet him, he is utterly burned out on all things Halloween.
Happening onto a portal that takes him to a world where Christmas is the main focus of society, Jack is initially happy to have escaped his routine place in his own little mileu. But he soon finds that there is a price to be paid for abandoning one’s natural talents and personal strengths. Skilled at creating wonderful Halloween celebrations, in other words, Jack is a dire failure at planning for Christmas festivities.
In this film, Burton allows us to consider that we must accept ourselves and our weaknesses unconditionally. In fact, sometimes embracing our own “otherness” is an essential step towards developing a genuine sense of self-esteem. It’s a lesson that many of us must experience in our own lives at some point.
3. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985)
On its face, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” seems like a comedy. Like many of Tim Burton’s films, however, “Big Adventure” celebrates the connections that we make as human beings. Setting out on a journey to find his stolen bicycle, Pee Wee Herman comes to believe that his prized possession is being held hostage in the basement of the Alamo in Texas. Of course, Pee Wee doesn’t realize that the Alamo doesn’t even have a basement; without thinking critically about his situation, he embarks on a cross-country quest.
But the viewer comes to realize that the bike is just a distraction in Pee Wee’s mind. Along his strange journey to the Alamo, Pee Wee meets wonderful friends willing to help him in his time of need. As Tim Burton shows us, life is about the people who surround us.
4. “Batman” (1989)
Worth viewing for Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker alone, “Batman” isn’t your typical superhero film. In fact, Burton gives a psychological depth to his comic book characters that is unprecedented in the superhero genre as a whole. In his own telling of the Batman legend, our hero is a person deeply scarred by the death of his parents. Like Herman Melville’s legendary Ahab character from “Moby-Dick,” Burton’s Batman is a flawed person He was driven by an all-encompassing obsession to rid the world of an evil force that has deeply affected his life.
Here, the conflict between good and evil takes on a kind of epic formality. In terms of films based on comic books, it’s a directorial performance that hasn’t been rivaled since.
While we tend to think of Tim Burton’s films as alternating between silly hijinks and high gothic imagery, the truth is that each of his productions is chiefly concerned with the trials and tribulations of the human heart. He is a filmmaker who is dedicated to showing the best of humanity in its weaker moments. For that dedication to moral exploration alone, we owe Burton much gratitude and respect as both a director and a person.