10 ways to identify a Tim Burton film

To celebrate Tim Burton's newest magical fantasy adventure Alice Through The Looking Glass, we’re looking back at some of his very best work.

Popular amongst teens and adults alike, Burton has an ability to reach out to his audience in a unique manner, touching upon subjects and themes other directors feel uncomfortable approaching.

Such is his original style that his films have taken on the status of legend. Alongside the likes of Hitchcock and Spielberg, Burton’s films contain calling cards which, no matter the narrative of the film, almost always appear in some manner.


Danny Elfman

A Burton film is not quite complete without a sweeping score by composer Danny Elfman. From delicate, fairy tale-like pieces to sweeping and epic orchestral movements, Elfman and Burton have created music that has become as iconic as the films themselves.

Showing an ability to balance lightness and whimsy alongside imposing darkness is the main reason behind Elfman’s now legendary work, and few of his films show this as successfully as Edward Scissorhands.
‘Grand finale’ incorporates the delicate nature of Edward’s theme with a huge, sweeping statement to end the film. A fairy tale for grown-ups, Edward Scissorhands is perfectly complimented with this score.

It is, perhaps, Elfman’s work on another Burton classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, for which he is most famous.
Beyond the wonderful score, Elfman also offered up his vocal chords for Jack Skellington’s singing voice, showcasing his range of musical talent.

Johnny Depp
Burton and Depp have become one of the most famous pairings in Hollywood, beginning at a time when Depp was seen by many to be a one-trick teen idol made for mainstream, predictable romances. Through Burton, Depp became one of the best-loved character actors working at the time, and has resulted in his performances in some of the biggest films of all time.
It was Edward Scissorhands that first saw the pair work together, and was a film which highlighted both of their greatest talents. Burton showed his gothic genius, creating a relatable story which combined realism and surrealism to brilliant effect. Depp, meanwhile, was finally able to stretch his acting muscles as well as show a modern audience the power of an almost silent character.

Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are just a handful of their other collaborations together. Though the films have had varying degrees of success, it's clear to see that Burton and Depp not challenge one another to discover the deeper talents of the other but also simply have a blast creating weird and wonderful cinema together.

Helena Bonham Carter
Burton’s style perfectly complements Helena Bonham Carter’s own acting abilities, as her suspicious, untrustworthy and often desperate characters fit in so well in Burton’s dark films. Bonham Carter is able to read Burton’s direction brilliantly, knowing exactly when to ‘ham up’ her performance, and when it calls for a restrained fear.

In Alice in Wonderland, Bonham Carter is in her element as she shows off fabulously camp style, which is made all more eccentric by Burton’s choice to warp her head, and clothing. The brightness of the scenery and clothing is offset stunningly by her overtly evil character, making for a very memorable performance.

In contrast, her role within Sweeney Todd requires rapid jumps between subdued and intense fear to chaotic joyfulness and hope. Her lust is portrayed wonderfully, as Burton directs her further and further into desperation and, until the moment where she takes her last breath, the audience understands her motives are nothing short of pure love and desire.


Hair and make-up
While many of Burton’s creations take on a variety of different looks, from the bubble-gum pinks and pastels of the residents in Edward Scissorhands to the Hollywood glamour of Ed Wood, his key characters usually have a few aesthetic qualities in common.

Pale skin is regularly seen on these characters, perhaps translating to the time spent indoors alone; dark eyes gleefully pop from their skulls, while huge, dark hair frame their faces, giving the appearance of one who doesn’t really care all that much about appearance.

This dark aesthetic successfully contradicts many characters personalities, so often cheerful, friendly and helpful. This adds to the ‘outcast’ storyline of many of his films, proving that no detail goes unnoticed by the director.


Burton has shown an ability to work his films within a vast range of settings, from prim-and-proper suburbia to disenchanted Victorian England. In each setting, the director is able to find an element which is pure evil, as well as something which is just pure.

It is the Victorian architecture that seems to attract Burton the most, upon which he has projected his own twisted aesthetic. Narrow windows restricting the light into the building with thick stone used as brick; glamorous and over-the-top gardens surround the buildings reflecting the art found within nature.


Childhood and nostalgia

Burton is quite open about the influence his childhood has over some of his films, and this theme can be found predominantly within his earlier work and ideas. Edward Scissorhands in particular is heavily influenced by his own experiences living in suburbia, attempting to fit in but unable to make any permanent friendships.

Frankenweenie is another famous example of Burton's childhood seeping into his films. Influences from his home town and school have crept into the scenery, while his icon Vincent Price is also paid given homage.

As well as the film marking his reunion with Winona Ryder after 21 years apart, there are heavy references to the works that influenced the narrative, which he wrote decades earlier: Mary Shelley is paid homage to throughout, perhaps best within a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it graveyard slot; Elsa Van-Helsing not only refers to the famous fictional Van-Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but also Elsa Lanchester, the original The Bride of Frankenstein.

Halloween & Christmas
A larger subsection of his trademark of childhood and nostalgia, Halloween and Christmas take a prominent role within several of his works. These holidays, so beloved by children, are both highly respected and inverted within themselves by Burton, who clearly both adores and despises these holidays himself.
It is The Nightmare Before Christmas that depicts these holidays most readily, as Jack Skellington causes Halloweentown and Christmas Town to collide. The sanctity of Christmas as a purely joyous and innocent time is seen as a main theme here, while this form of innocence is also seen as a metaphor for Edward in Edward Scissorhands.

Exclusion and popularity

Another subsection of childhood and nostalgia, exclusion and popularity are seen throughout Burton’s films, from his very earliest work, up to more adult forms in the likes of Sweeney Todd. Initially Burton focused upon the exclusion being seen as ‘odd’ can bring about for a child and teenager, though he has developed these themes into adulthood in later films.
Sweeney Todd is a particularly good example of this theme; the demon barber is literally expelled from society as he is an inconvenience to a more powerful figure, and it is this act that eventually sends him into a murderous madness.

Meanwhile, Sleepy Hollow shows what it is to be progressive in a society that refuses to look to the future. Depp here plays a man who is scientifically minded and much more progressive than his time, but soon realises science cannot account for everything. His obscure ideas make him a target and laughing stock of the town he is investigating, but it is he who eventually saves the day.


Stop motion animation

The jerky, quirky actions of a stop motion picture perfectly complements the Tim Burton style of narrative, as he is most successfully able to manipulate the surroundings into his pure vision without restriction.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is Burton’s first example of this form, and Halloweentown is brought spectacularly to life. Where the director to make this film a live action piece, many of the scenes would perhaps become too sinister –the stop motion ensures a sense of innocence is never lost.
Burton returned to the form with The Corpse Bride, which felt much more macabre simple in its style compared to Nightmare. The blue-scale choice of colours helped the film feel cold, though the quirky, cute style stop motion can provide was never lost.

His most recent example of the form, Frankenweenie, was filmed in stop motion to further highlight the labour of love the film was to him. The animation is clearly beloved to him, and the time and dedication stop motion requires is seen within this particular film.

The director has shown a deep affection for the retelling of famous narratives, whether they be based in urban legend, or famous works of literature. He has a unique manner of portraying these stories as adult fairy-tales, whether they are quirky and innocent, or incredibly dark and violent.
Sleepy Hollow is one of the most beloved retellings of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, and Burton here uses traditional fairy-tale narratives and tropes to enhance his personal story. Employing various legends within the film, such as scarecrows, witchcraft and Blue Beard, Burton turned the story from a traditional American narrative into a modern version of a Blue Beard tale, originally told by Charles Perrault.

Meanwhile, Sweeney Todd was first created as a character in the Victorian penny dreadful The Strings of Pearls, but has gone on to gain a mythological status as scholars debate the likeliness of his existence. It is a gruesome fairy-tale that takes on the violence from stories such as those told by The Brothers Grimm, and uses shock and gore to teach its audience.