Jordan Peele’s “Us” and its terrific $71 million opening is his second straight critically acclaimed hit, following his Oscar-winning “Get Out.” On its heels comes Tim Burton’s “Dumbo,” the latest in Disney’s live-action recreation of its cartoon classics. Opening projections for that film are lower, around $50 million or so. The two films represent an interesting juxtaposition of two careers — one veteran, one ascendent — with a common source.
Both men broke into public view with unlikely comedy-related hits, then followed up with an inventive original horror-adjunct film that also opened about double the debut. For Burton, it was 1985’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” At 2019 ticket prices, it grossed $104 million, #19 among its year’s top grossers. “Get Out” was even bigger ($176 million, #14 for 2017). Like “Us,” Burton’s “Beetlejuice” was backed by higher budgets, trusting the directors’ vision and originality a second time to terrific results.
We’ll see how Peele’s trajectory continues. But with “Dumbo” set to debut, let’s look at some of the distinctive elements of Burton’s 34-year directing career.
“Dumbo” will be Burton’s 10th film to gross $100 million. That’s out of 19 releases. Since the ’80s, he’s had at least two films at this level in every decade, putting him in elite company. The first five all crossed that finish line with “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and “Batman Returns.” That five-for five achievement is matched only by John Lasseter. “Sleepy Hollow,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Alice in Wonderland” all reached that level ahead of”Dumbo.”
These films have an adjusted domestic gross just over $3 billion. Six other directors have also had 10 or more titles at $100 million or better. Here is the elite company he will join, with their adjusted domestic grosses:
- Steven Spielberg – 21 films over 43 years: $9.8 billion
- Clint Eastwood – 15 films over 42 years: $3.3 billion
- Robert Zemeckis – 14 films over 28 years: $4 billion
- Ron Howard – 13 films over 34 years: $3.6 billion
Two other current directors have had nine films gross over $100 million: Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese. The only other director in history to have achieved anything quite like this was Cecil B. DeMille, who blockbusters went from 1913 (“The Squaw Man”) to 1956 (“The 10 Commandments”). (James Cameron has been absent this decade, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino first struck gold in the 1990s).
Burton is one film in the 2020s away from joining Spielberg and Eastwood in the club of grossing 10 or more $100 million films across five decades.
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More than anything, Burton has been a brand. That’s not a dismissive assessment; as a director, Alfred Hitchcock made himself into a brand that reflected genre, tone, and attitude. It’s a mantle that Burton also carries as the go-to director for projects that reinvent pop-culture artifacts. So while his vision is often skewed and offbeat, it makes him ideal for studios that love to market familiar property while convincing audiences that it’s something fresh. No current director fits that definition better than Burton.
Though not his most acclaimed film, his 1989 “Batman” might be his most influential. His third feature, and its sequel, “Batman Returns,” were huge successes. “Batman” adjusted still ranks as the sixth biggest comic adaptation ever, with a domestic gross of $568 million. In the ’80s, that inspired other comic-book films including “Dick Tracy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “The Crow,” and “The Mask,” all of which led to both D.C. Comics and Marvel becoming the vast empires that now dominate box office.
What Burton initiated is particularly visible on the Marvel side: a skilled visionary stylist with a distinct voice that adds personality to even massive productions. Without that, the genre’s trajectory might have been far different.
He has also lent himself to the impersonal, super-corporate Disney brand. His “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010 started the decade-long genre of live-action versions of animated classics. Its huge success also likely made Disney willing to assign veteran acclaimed directors like Bill Condon, Kenneth Branagh, and Sam Raimi to helm them, giving them a more adult feel.
He’s also been influential as a genre revisionist. George Lucas and Spielberg were viewed as creative but more conventional filmmakers who found huge success by revising popular genres as modern entertainment. With “Batman,” Burton built on his initial films by trying something different, and succeeded.
It’s a career that’s seen spotty moment, and he hasn’t developed the cult-like followings of Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. It remains to be seen how “Dumbo” will make (Disney holds back details on this and similar films’ budgets, but $200 million isn’t a bad guess), with international response critical. Initial reviews have been mixed, and the story doesn’t have the guaranteed appeal as of some of the studio’s biggest remakes.
That may be why they turned to Burton for this. It’s a tricky project, one that needed vision and updating to make the transition. As for the next decade, he has no confirmed project — but one possibility is a proposed “Beetlejuice 2.”