Tim Burton: The Man Behind Some of Our Favorite Disney Films

Cassandra Workman

From “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” to the recent release of “Dumbo,” Tim Burton has been delighting Disney fans for years; with his whimsical gothic style and dark tales, this versatile director is a household name, synonymous with the macabre. But who exactly is the man behind these beloved stories?

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Timothy Walter Burton was born in the suburbs of Burbank, California; this seemingly normal place to call home felt like a prison for young Burton, and the cookie cutter lifestyle found there would influence his style and stories. Even at a young age, Tim was withdrawn from others, finding solace in drawing and watching classic monster films. He related to those monsters, as he often felt like an outsider.

Alone with his imagination, young Burton would experiment with stop motion animation techniques, while directing his own short films. His love for art got him through High School and into the California Institute of the Arts. While there, Burton honed in on his now famous style, through his shorts: Stalk of the Celery Monster and King and Octopus. These homemade short films attracted the attention of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, who offered the young director an apprenticeship.

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Life at the Walt Disney Studios

While at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Burton worked as an animator, concept artist, and graphic designer; he lent his creativity to the films “The Fox and the Hound,” (1981) “Tron” (1982) and “The Black Cauldron” (1985). Despite the work he put into the films, none of his art or ideas made it into any of them.

While still working for Disney, Burton created the short “Vincent” (1982) which followed a young boy inspired by the works and persona of horror legend Vincent Price. This black and white, stop motion animation attracted a lot of support and recognition; this inspired the budding director to create his newest short, “Frankenweenie” (1984). Different than the stop motion film that would later be released under the Disney name, this film was live action; featuring the death (and reincarnation) of Sparky the dog, the film was deemed “too scary” for children. As a result, Disney decided to fire Burton, who had spent their resources on a film they couldn’t release.

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A young Tim Burton working on his popular short "Vincent"
Tim burton Working on “vincent”

Away from Disney, Burton began directing low budget films, including “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) and the now classic “Beetlejuice” (1988). These unique and quirky films proved successful for Burton, thus impressing big movie executives; due to this, Burton was given his first big budget film with “Batman” (1989). The dark take on the beloved hero catapulted Burton to success, allowing him freedom with his following films.

Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) follows spooky, yet lovable characters, which are based on an original poem written by Burton during his time with Disney. Though he did not direct this now classic staple of the holidays, Burton did help produce the film to ensure his style was front and center. Similar to “Frankenweenie,” Disney worried the film was too scary for children and thus the feature was released under the Touchstone Pictures brand.

The film was a critical and financial success, and thus Disney eventually reissued it under their name; it has become so popular that Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion undergoes a transformation each holiday season, to bring the film to life. Along with its popularity, the film also helped to stabilize Burton’s relationship with Disney.

Tim burton with jack skellington and sally puppets (the nightmare before christmas)

Burton and Disney Reunited

After “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Burton would go on to produce another Disney fan favorite: “James and the Giant Peach” (1996). Having been inspired by Roald Dahl, Burton joined the team, eager to bring his macabre style to the popular book. Similarly to “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the film was directed by Henry Selick and done in stop motion.

14 years later, Burton would bring his dark and gothic style to the Disney classic “Alice in Wonderland.” His live-action film of the same name dives deeper than the original film, focusing on a new journey that still relates to the classic storyline. This film would inspire more live-action remakes of animated classics, and would also spawn a sequel called “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (2016).

Along with those, Burton was able to recreate his once controversial short “Frankenweenie” into a full length feature, using stop motion; this time, Burton had Disney’s full support despite the new film being similar to the original which got him fired all those years ago. The 2012 movie paid homage to Burton’s short “Vincent,” and other classic, black and white monster flicks.

More recently, Burton joined up with Disney once again to direct the live-action reboot of “Dumbo” (2019). Using CGI, live actors and an elephant puppet, Burton brings this classic tear jerker to life. Through his remakes, Burton is reintroducing these beloved movies to new generations, emphasizing uniqueness to audiences young and old.

Currently, all of Burton’s Disney hits are available to watch on Disney+. Some of the spookier ones have even made our top must watch list for the Halloween season!

Tim Burton on the set of Dumbo
Tim burton on the set of “dumbo” (2019).

Other Films

Along with his Disney work, Burton has directed and produced numerous other hits; a few well known films of his are “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) “Corpse Bride” (2007) and “Big Eyes” (2014). While each are unique in their own way, the theme of feeling different is always prevalent. Along with his theme, Burton also reuses actors, with Johnny Depp, former girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter , Danny Devito and Michael Keaton being reoccurring stars. Burton has a long filmography, so for more information, click here.

Currently, Burton has not announced any new films, though rumors about him directing a new “Addams Family” show are floating around. Our fingers are crossed!

We hope to get more Tim Burton/Disney collabs soon! Follow Just Disney to stay updated.

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Born in Anaheim CA, I basically grew up at Disneyland and have been a long time annual pass holder for years; every birthday, accomplishment and milestone was celebrated in the parks, instilling magic into the most important moments of my life. Disney to me is an escape, a place to reconnect with the feeling of being a child, in a world where everything seems possible. Now living in Arizona, Disney may be far (and closed due to COVID-19) but it continues to inspire me and my writings. I eagerly await the day when I can walk down Mainstreet and become that child once more.
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