The Dark World of Tim Burton: Auteur Outsider


“I still feel, and I think a lot of people feel- of feeling misperceived…”

Tim Burton, 1997

Tim Burton

Tim Burton

Tim Burton has always considered himself an outsider.  As a child he would spend hours watching old Hammer horror films and drawing, completely enveloped in his own world.  He seemed to relate more with the monsters of the Hammer horror movies than with kids his own age, and he found salvation in drawing and creating his own worlds (Salisbury 6).  Now he is able to materialize his visions through his films.  From the cult favorites, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, to box office hits, Batman and Batman Returns, to critical applaudits, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and finally to the visual breakthroughs, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton has created a film repertoire that is truly his own.  Considered by most as odd, eccentric, and dark, he is commonly described as an “auteur”. By examining a number of his films, it becomes clear that there are certain themes and visual elements that define Tim Burton as an auteur. Such thematic principles as the “outsider” character, “split worlds” and 1950’s horror themes, as well as such visual styles as gothic expressionism and the live-action cartoon concept are key terms when describing the world of Tim Burton.

Burton’s first feature film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was released in 1985 and was a commercial success, later gaining cult status (Salisbury 20).  The movie is a big screen adaptation of TV-show personality Pee Wee Herman, who ends up on an adventure on a quest for his stolen bicycle.  The first theme of the movie is the concept of the protagonist being an outsider.

The Dark World Of Tim Burton

Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman

Pee Wee is very much the outsider. He lives in his own bizarre, childlike playhouse, full of toys and inventions.  He doesn’t need parents or a girlfriend; he only has love for his precious bike. (Denby 22).  He is innocent like a child, and is oblivious to the odd characters he meets while on the road, such as the escaped convict and the ghost truck driver, Large Marge.  He is sometimes ridiculed because he is naive, for example when he believes the fake fortune teller. It is as if the “normal” world outside is strange for him, and he can only function comfortably inside the world of his playhouse.  However, the characters he meets are touched by him because he is pure, and he inspires them to follow their dreams, just like he will find his bike.  His character though, remains fundamentally unchangeable throughout the movie, and in the end he retreats back to the comfort of his own world (Denby 22).  Even though he has become a movie star, he still insists on going to the drive-in on his bicycle.

The character of Pee Wee also represents the Burton visual motif of a live-action animation film.  Like the main characters of classic comics, he is always himself; dressed in a silver-gray suit, a white shirt and tiny red bow tie with a powdered face, reddened lips and molded black hair, he is unvarying, seemingly untouchable (Denby 22).  His world resembles a cartoon world because the film functions within a semi-surrealist, sunny anarchy where anything goes (Hassler-Forest).  Full of primary colours, shapes, exaggerated signs, toys and cheerful neighbours, it truly resembles the colorful fantasy world of a cartoon.  There is also stop-animation used to illustrate Pee Wee’s nightmares about his bike.  It is used to show the darker side of the bright sunny world and also reflects the common Burton theme of “split worlds”.

The theme of a split world is an essential part of Pee Wee’s character.  He lives in his own “normal” sunny world filled with toys, however when his bike is stolen, it represents the outer world disrupting his own world.  The stop-motion animation reveals his nightmare and the anxiety he feels over the loss of his bike.  Evil satanic clowns, animated dinosaurs, and the devil molest his bike and haunt him throughout his adventure.  This “dark side” provides a strong contrast with the bright cartoon“ish” world, and reflects the split world of the character.

This dark flip side shows another characteristic Burton visual element: gothic expressionism.   Like the German Expressionist films of the twenties, the nightmare sequences contain distorted perspectives, jagged angles, sharp contrast between light and dark and stylized lighting (Hassler-Forest).  The Hammer horror films of the 1950’s also influenced Burton, which is apparent in dark scenes such as with the ghost Large Marge, whose eyeballs bulge out of her head.

The theme of the outsider and split worlds as well as the visual aspects of a live-action animated film, 1950’s horror and gothic expressionism are all reflected in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  These are the key elements of style that would become more prominent in the Burton pictures to come.

Edward Scissorhands was released in 1990 and was a commercial and critical success (Salisbury 43).  The film tells the story of Edward, a young man who lives alone in a dark castle whose inventor died leaving him unfinished with only scissors for hands.  When a local Avon lady, Peg, discovers Edward, she brings him home with her, and he becomes the popular subject of the neighbourhood.  Like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, there is the theme of the outsider.

The Dark World of Tim Burton

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

Similarly to Pee Wee’s pure intentions of retrieving his bike, Edward is also the well-meaning outsider, innocent and naive.  He has lived his whole life inside his castle and has been closed off from society.  He is brought down from his gloomy castle, his “world”, and into the suburban home of Peg and her family, where everything is completely alien to him.  The neighbours initially accept his unusual appearance and demeanor, and he befriends them by cutting their hair, their hedges and barbecuing.  Despite his good intentions though, he always ends up hurting people from wanting to touch them (Hassler-Forest).  This leads to a misunderstanding in the end, and when the neighbours turn against him, he is forced to retreat back to his castle.  Much like Pee Wee, Edward’s character is unchanging, and realizes that he can only be safe in his own world.

Also, like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, there is the thematic concept of split worlds.  Similar to Pee Wee, Edward is most comfortable in his own world, away from society.  Again the two worlds are strongly contrasted using the same two forms of design from Pee Wee.  There is Edward’s castle, alone standing outside the town on a hill shrouded in fog and clouds.  Its dark gothic architecture is exaggerated against the pastel colours of the suburb (Hassler-Forest).  Much like Pee Wee, the bright, sunny, pastel colour-coordinated suburb is similar to a stylized cartoon.  Certain elements have been carefully exaggerated, such as the perfect lawns and smiling neighbours. The visual contrasts underline the difference in character between the sweet, trusting Edward and the backstabbing hypocritical neighbours (Hassler-Forest).

One final thematic concept of Edward Scissorhands is the 1950’s horror theme of the mad scientist building a well-intentioned but misunderstood creature. “Another slight inspiration was the Hammer horror films from the 50’s and 60’s.  There was always an ambiguousness to their character.  They were always separate, very serious and separate” (Breskin 330).  The serious and lonely tone of Edward is an obvious theme inspired by these Hammer horror films and they help build his character as an outsider.

Edward Scissorhands reflects the common themes and visual imagery of a Tim Burton film.  There is the protagonist outsider, the themes from Hammer horror films, as well as the gothic world, which contrasts with the cartoon world.  Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas also relies heavily upon these themes and concepts, and further establishes his reputation as an auteur.

Released in 1993 Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was a hit at the box office and with critics (Salisbury 70).  It was the first modern stop-motion animated feature film and musical (Hirshey 228).  The story revolves around Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloweenland.  However, he feels bored with his life, so when he discovers Christmastown one night, he has Santa kidnapped and decides that this year he will be in charge of Christmas.  Once again, like Pee Wee and Edward, Jack is somewhat an outsider.  He does not feel at home in Halloweenland, where he knows he belongs, so he tries to adapt and fit in with the world of Christmastown by becoming Santa (Hirshey 229).  Although his intentions are good, like those of Pee Wee and Edward, he is misunderstood as a scary impersonation of Santa and shot out of the sky.  Much like the way Edward was chased back to his castle, Jack realizes his place and returns to his world of Halloweenland.

The Dark World of Tim Burton

Nightmare Before Christmas

The theme of split worlds is again, very apparent in this film.  Both Halloweenland and Christmastown literally exist in two different worlds, each with their own entrance, their own look and their own morality (Hassler-Forest).  Halloweenland is very twisted, dark and gloomy, full of German Expressionism: distorted perspectives, stylized lighting and backdrop.  Christmastown on the other hand is full of joy, snow, toys, elves, bright lights, and trains filled with candy.  These two worlds can easily be compared with Pee Wee’s bright, colourful, toy filled world versus his nightmares, and Edward’s lonely, dark castle versus the pastel suburbs.  By having two such different worlds, the outsider immediately stands out, and it becomes evident where they truly belong.

The 1950’s horror theme of the mad scientist and the misunderstood monster are also at play in this film.  Jack’s friend Sally is the creation of a mad scientist whom she is constantly trying to escape, turning to Jack for support.  However, once Jack returns from Christmastown, he doesn’t quite understand what he has seen and conducts many experiments, acting like a mad scientist.  When he decides to become Santa, he in doing so creates a monster out of himself, and it is Sally who tries to dissuade him.  This Hammer horror theme works well in this film because it helps develop the relationship between Jack and Sally.  Along with the themes of the outsider, split worlds and the visual concepts of gothic expressionism and stop-motion animation Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas truly reflects the style of Tim Burton, very much the auteur that the title of this movie advertises.

Tim Burton has often said that the most important parts of a movie for him are the characters and the images.  “The only thing that keeps me going through a movie is that these characters mean something to me.  I get a feeling out of them that I find to be very meaningful, and thematic…” (Breskin 328); “The thing that’s always been very important to me is the visuals as story.  The images, for me, are the story…” (Breskin 340).  By examining only three of his films, the character concepts and visual images become very clear.  There is the constant theme of an outsider, good hearted but misunderstood.  There is the theme of a split world, the world which separates the outsider from the “normal” world, of which they learn they can never be a part.  The influence of the 1950’s Hammer horror films are reflected through such images as the bulging eyeballs and the concept of a mad scientist creating a misunderstood monster.  Finally there are the visual images, dark, gothic German Expressionism in contrast with a bright, cartoon”ish”, exaggerated world.  By exploring the weird and wonderful world of Tim Burton and pulling together these common themes and images, one can conclude that he is indeed an auteur, perhaps the most unique of his generation.

Works Cited

Breskin, David. Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation. Da Capo Press: New York, 1997.

Denby, David “The Cartoon World Of Tim Burton”. Premiere: July 1989. vol. 2 no.11. pg. 22

Edward Scissorhands. Twentieth Century Fox: 1990

Hassler-Forest, Dan. Dan’s Definitive Tim Burton Page.

Hirshey, Gerri “Tim Burton”. Vogue: June, 1994-pg. 228, 229


Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Warner Bros: 1985

Salisbury, Mark. Burton on Burton. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.


Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Touchstone Pictures: 1993

The Dark World of Tim Burton:  Auteur Outsider
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The Dark World of Tim Burton: Auteur Outsider
The Dark World of Tim Burton: Auteur Outsider
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