For anyone who has an interest in horror films, Tim Burton’s cinematic universe is a Halloween staple. Where most horror films are reliant on shock value with gore and intense depictions of violence, Burton’s bright, colorful films seem harmless in comparison, making them perfect family films for the festive period.
However, when watching the films as an adult, Burton’s films take on a much more eerie and sinister quality, featuring underlying themes of depression and other mental health topics, as they also capture the fears of loneliness and isolation which are relatable to so many teenagers and young adults.
While films like the 2007 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street are rated R or for ages 18 and up, the vast majority of Burton’s films are rated for ages 12 and under, highlighting their intent to be viewed by children (or at least that they are deemed appropriate for children). His infamous 1993 film The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick, conceived and produced by Burton) is perhaps the lowest rated, being given a 6+ age rating on Disney+. This has no small significance to the horror genre, as the vast majority of horror films are rated R due to their depictions of blood, violence, and other mature material. Graphic imagery may be more obviously unsuitable for children, but it also may be unappealing to many adults. Burton’s films, with their less overtly explicit images, occupy the perfect in-between space of dark material which can be enjoyed by both adult fans of horror and children alike.
However, Burton’s films may not be as suitable for children as they initially appear. It is easy to be distracted by the lighthearted music, particularly with songs like The Corpse Bride’s “The Remains of the Day” which wonderfully utilizes the xylophone and upbeat, jazz-like tones crafted by the insanely talented Danny Elfman. Yet these entertaining sounds are used to tell the origins of the titular Corpse Bride who was killed by a greedy lover. This juxtaposition between the lyrics and the style of the song epitomizes the genre of Burton’s horror — one in which dark, tragic undertones are hidden beneath glossy veneers.
Danny Elfman plays a significant role in creating the spooky magic of Burton’s films. The composer has written for almost every Burton film and does so superbly. Across the range of his music, from upbeat songs like “Oogie Boogie’s Song” and “What’s This?” to the more eerie “Sally’s Song” or “Jack’s Lament,” Elfman always manages to perfectly mirror exactly what Burton hopes to portray through the cinematography in terms of childlike wonder alongside explorations of the darkness. Elfman himself even voices the character of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, managing to capture the troubled individual in his pursuit of happiness as he attempts to recreate Christmas in Halloween Town.
This is where the more adult themes to the film begin to emerge. The exploration of isolation and loneliness is a recurring theme across Burton’s films with characters like the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) and Edward Scissorhands (portrayed by Johnny Depp) exemplifying the shared human fear of being the outcast. While some children watching the film might understand immediately, personally, I did not connect very strongly to these themes until I became an adult and could recognize parts of myself in these characters. As a child, I had been enthralled by Jack Skellington’s determination to bring Christmas and joy to people; as an adult I emotionally connected to his fears of under-achieved potential, and his terror about the idea of the “unlived life” and whether you can ever achieve true happiness. In addition, even though The Nightmare Before Christmas has a lower age rating, some of the imagery was terrifying to me even as an adult so I have no idea how I coped as a child. The Evil Scientist (William Hickey) and Sally (Catherine O’Hara) harken back to horror stories like Frankenstein, utilizing the grotesque to create a sense of unease among the audience. This is further emphasized by Burton’s use of stop-motion animation, which makes the film feel a lot more disjointed and the movements more sinister; the characters do not always move smoothly.
Despite the uncanny and uneasy appearance of Burton’s work, what characterizes his films as suitable for children is his reliance on childhood fairytales and tropes. Characters like Sandy Claws (Santa Claus) in conjunction with his reimagining of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory appeal to children because they are stories which they already recognize, arguably giving him more creative freedom with his cinematography and creative vision as he has to find ways to make these ideas more horrifying.
Sweeney Todd is somewhat of an anomaly for Burton due to the more sinister tones to the movie, as well as the graphic depictions of blood and violence. Sweeney Todd occupies a bizarre intersection of film genres, being targeted towards adults yet employing the qualities of Burton’s films so well-known to his younger audiences, fulfilling neither the traditional role of the horror film nor that of a children’s film. This arguably makes it one of Burton’s most interesting projects to date as he pushes the boundaries of what it means to make a horror film, relying on the more universally heart-wrenching experiences of what it means to be a human; one in which loneliness seems to be a permanent underlying fear, rather than the graphic violence of so many horror films.
This is something that I feel has grown in popularity in recent years as a trope with TV shows like Bojack Horseman proving immensely popular with audiences because of the raw depiction of mental health, something which for many is more terrifying than any gore could be as we are forced to recognize and confront our own problems. In Corpse Bride, Burton characterizes Victor, Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson) and Corpse Bride herself as outsiders; young people who feel excluded from the world as they fail to form real connections with one another. This is seen at the start of the film with Victor’s piano solo, immediately characterizing him as a loner who feels on the outskirts of society. His interactions with his bride-to-be Victoria only serve to further this characterization as he seems clumsy and awkward, capturing the self-hatred that this can breed when we are in our teenage years. Corpse Bride herself is perhaps loneliest of all, epitomized when she realizes that Victor is in fact going to return to the real world, leaving her behind in the Land of the Dead, as she laments her feelings of loneliness. At the film’s conclusion, she returns the ring to Victor before throwing her bouquet and disappearing into butterflies, something which to an adult audience could be considered a rather poetic form of suicide. While this could be criticized for normalizing mental health problems, I think for many it provides a welcome conclusion to a film which suggests that being alone does not have to be truly devastating and can instead be something we find comfort in; or perhaps it can help us recognize that we are not as alone as his own characters fear.
Interestingly, Corpse Bride is only rated as PG, despite its similar depiction of mental health and the allusions to suicide at the film’s conclusion. Again, Burton gets away with this because of the veneer he hides the darker themes behind. On a surface level, the film is a somewhat comedic depiction of family expectations and the irony of Vincent’s misunderstanding stemming from his awkwardness. However, on closer inspection the film deals with murders, death, and, again, the terror of isolation. The setting of the film is largely in the Land of The Dead, a place which is shown to be far more vibrant and lively than the dreary grey world where Victor is originally from as he contends with an arranged marriage and class expectations, potentially romanticizing death to add to Burton’s love of the morbid. This juxtaposition of the color palette, contrasting dark and light, is one of the ways that Burton manages to explore these ideas so well across his films as his films are either characterized by their dull, neutrally colored palettes, or by their overly vibrant, almost overwhelming color palettes. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at times feels almost over-exposed, adding to the sense of unreality.
While some of the films are quite “dark” aesthetically, to say that these films are too dark for children because of the more emotionally complex themes is to underestimate children’s ability to understand these concepts which I believe are important for their development. A scene I find particularly moving is in The Nightmare Before Christmas, where we see Jack sat atop an angel statue after failing to fulfill the role of Sandy Claws. This resonated with me because of his sense of desperation to be loved and appreciated, as well as his fears of failing to achieve greatness, something that I feel the majority of audience members would be able to relate to. While Jack is at first disheartened, he gains momentum and decides that he can in fact still save Christmas, deciding to rescue Sandy Claws. This scene was both moving to me as an individual because of its explorations of ambition and fears around this, as well as its depictions of isolation and lost friendships as Jack is left with only his ghost-dog, Zero as a companion.
That isn’t to say that all of Burton’s films should be viewed by all young children, as there are clearly reasons for certain films having a higher age rating, however, the films that are rated for younger age groups should be consumed by their intended audience who might connect with their emotional themes. For so many of my peers, Burton’s films were an integral part of their childhood, and they have become films that I regularly revisit, with The Nightmare Before Christmas being a Halloween staple for my family, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being revisited every Christmas without fail. His work is constantly pushing the boundaries of what it means to make a film as he reinvents cliched tropes and uses inventive cinematography techniques to create something that feels wholly unique to his style. To have a child miss out on these incredibly inspiring experiences of watching his films would be a major detriment. While the 90s and early 2000s are considered by many to be Burton’s prime, Halloween is the perfect time to revisit some of his classics, perhaps introducing his films to a new generation who will grow to be nostalgic for these revolutionary childhood films.
Editor’s note: This piece is a comparative study of themes throughout filmmaker Tim Burton’s filmography, and thus throughout the piece refers to films that Burton has created (in various roles as director, writer, producer, etc) as “Burton’s film.” The work is not that of a single individual, though, as Burton has worked with a large number of collaborators, creating films with a number of fellow writers and directors, throughout his career, and this collaboration is key to these film’s artistry.