Tim Burton’s Big Eyes: A Grounded Film from an Unusual Director

Burton directs Amy Adams on the set of Big Eyes.
Burton directs Amy Adams on the set of Big Eyes .

A Tim Burton film is generally easy to spot at the box office. The brainchild behind such beloved films as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Corpse Bride—Burton has very particular finger prints. His films will focus on loners or outcasts who find themselves thrust in a world more bizzare than their own. He has made fantasy films, science fiction films, even a biographical film here and there. He’ll use bright primary colors or dark dim colors and sometimes a combination of two. There is typically a gothic element whether it’s in the character design or the production design. But most noticeably, Burton usually pulls from the same pool of actors. For these reasons, his latest directorial effort Big Eyes seems like a strange choice.

Big Eyes, released in December of last year, tells the true story of painter Margaret Keane and her struggle for artistic ownership. Keane’s work typically depicts children or women with enlarged eyes, a style which took off in the late fifties and early 60s. Margaret Ulbrich leaves her first husband and moves to California in the 50s, hoping to start a new life for herself and her daughter. She soon finds herself married again, this time to “fellow painter.” Walter Keane. Walter believes he and Margaret could be making loads of money in the art world– only to find Margaret’s work is the only big sell. After a misunderstanding Walter begins to take credit for his wife’s work. Years pass, with Walter becoming a huge media sensation leaving Margaret out in the dust. When she eventually gains the courage to leave him, Margaret files a plagiarism suit against him.

Unlike Burton’s other biographical work Ed Wood, Big Eyes does not always pull from Burton’s usual techniques. The film uses traditional narrative techniques, a consistent brighter color palette, actors he hasn’t worked with before, with little to none fantasy elements. Big Eyes is a refreshing film for Burton but is not a complete or absolute departure from his usual work. By examining the differences and the likenesses to his other work we can gain a new appreciation for this popular filmmaker.

Traditional Narrative Techniques & Color Palette

Big Eyes opens with Margaret Ulbrich and her daughter packing the last of their belongings into a small car; all with the voice over narration. The narrator is a reporter by the name of Dick Nolan and frames the movie as a study of Margaret and the world she was living in. While the narration technique is not necessarily popular in modern cinema, it is an extremely useful tool. The narrator can set the tone of the film, provide necessary information at the start, give a film a storybook feel. This is why you’ll see narration used in fairy tale adaptations most often. It also can make a story more personal if a character in the film is narrating. For example in the film The Sandlot, the adult version of the lead narrates the film. In Big Eyes, Nolan provides the audience with a sense of time and place. He speaks of the era and how for a woman in the 1950s, it took a lot of courage and guts to leave her husband– as Margaret had done. He also sets the film up as a true story, the kind of story you would see in the newspaper or a magazine. Nolan’s voice also has a warmth to it, providing the film with a sense of ease and calm. Burton films will typically start with a sense of calm before things take a turn for the worse. The same can be said for Big Eyes.

Walter tries to get Margaret to go along with his lie.
Walter tries to get Margaret to go along with his lie.

Nolan’s narration accompanies a bright and welcoming world. At the beginning of the film, there is a lot use of yellows and baby blues suggesting Margaret is entering a brighter world. A world free of an awful husband in sunny California. Many of the early scenes take place outside and uses the natural environment to convey Margaret’s present freedom. As Walter starts to take control of her and her life she moves inside where the colors are still bright and warm but are muted. In one memorable scene, when Margaret discovers Walter is calling himself the artist behind her paintings, the scene uses bright red in the background. The bright suggest the underlying tension between Margaret and Walter while not looking different from the rest of the film. In a later scene, when Walter tries to convince Margaret she is still the true artist he dances with her. In this scene, the color of the room is a dark yellow with natural sunlight coming through a window. The use of color and lighting suggest there is still some hope left in Margaret despite the bleak surroundings.

Speaking of the uses of color in settings, some of the most ‘Burtonesque’ moments involve the suburbs. Burton himself grew up in the suburbs and it seems to have influenced his work in some way. For example his film Edward Scissorhands takes place in a colorful suburban area. The color used there is bright but kind of boring in that everything is made of the same bright colors, suggesting a blandness. In the beginning of Big Eyes, Margaret and her daughter are leaving the suburbs. These suburbs are also bright and colorful and suggest conventionality. In Burton’s recent work such as Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows he also uses bright colors but in a different capacity. Alice uses colors against darker and gothic backgrounds which allows them to pop. Dark Shadows uses a similar pattern to mimic the 70s era in which the film takes place. The effect gives these films an otherworldly feel which is fitting as they are fantasy oriented films. But Big Eyes needed to be grounded in one world, our world. Burton used natural and bright colors to convey this along with a sense of time and place.


Burton usually teams up with the same actors again and again particularly in his most recent films. Burton usually casts character actors such as Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Christopher Lee. The combinations of these actors are generally his most well-known films and most accepted by the main stream. His last few films Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, and Corpse Bride used this group. It came as quite a surprise when Big Eyes uses all new actors. The film stars Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, and Krysten Ritter. Jason Schwartzman and Terrence Stamp also star in the film, but in smaller roles. Burton gets some genuine and interesting performances from the majority of the cast.

Margaret, portrayed by Amy Adams, smiles for a picture.
Margaret, portrayed by Amy Adams, smiles for a picture.

Amy Adams portrays Margaret Keane, an unusual choice for Burton. Adams had recently moved into big blockbuster territory with hits such as Man of Steel and Enchanted. Adams manages to portray vulnerability while still giving a sense of modest strength. Adams originally passed on the role believing Margaret to be a fairly weak-willed character. After reading the screenplay a second time Adams found the character to have a modest inner strength. She would have to have that attribute to leave not one husband, but two in a time when women would never do such a thing. As the start of the film, Margaret is interviewing for a job after leaving her first husband. In this scene, the hiring manager questions if her husband is okay with her working. You can detect her embarrassment and determination when she says she left her husband and that her daughter will be taken care of. Later on, when she fights back in the courtroom you no longer see that shame-faced woman. Instead you see a woman finally taking control of her life and property. Adams pulls off this change brilliantly.

On par with Adams is Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane, a brilliant business man and a liar all in one. Waltz is better known for playing villains in films like Inglorious Basterds. As Walter, Waltz is likable and brilliant but you can also detect a dark undercurrent. The film manages to sympathize with him once or twice thanks to Waltz. The audience learns Walter always wanted to be an artist, but he didn’t have the talent to do so. Initially, he means to correct the assumption that he painted Margaret’s paintings. Moments later you see the greed take over Waltz’s eyes. When Walter finally loses his grip, as the audience knows he would, the turn feels natural thanks to Waltz’s performance. That being said, there are moments when Waltz seems a bit over the top, a bit too giddy. In the courtroom scene, it is Adams the shines in her performance, while Waltz comes off as trying too hard. The screenwriters claim that Walter was, in fact, that over-the-top during the trial and Burton seems to believe them. All in all though, Waltz performance is worth some attention.

Besides the two leads the film provides other interest and unique characters. Krysten Ritter portrays Margaret’s young friend who questions her need to marry Walter. Danny Huston as Dick Nolan provides the story with necessary framework. Jason Schwartzman and Terrence Stamp play snobby art critics, who don’t believe in Walter’s so-called talent at all. Burton’s decision to use all these unique talents dilutes Burton’s usual flavoring. It also manages to show his ability to direct all kinds of actors and not just his favorites to work with.

Lack of Fantasy/Gothic Elements

As stated previously, Burton likes to play in the fantasy and or gothic genre. Big Eyes uses one special effect in the entire film and it’s not used to push the film in a fantasy direction. When Margaret begins to get frustrated with Walter and her art she begins to see the big eyes she paints in people and even herself. The sight of these eyes are a sign she is losing her sense of self. She says in the film the eyes are so big to indicate her feelings. This is why she paints children because she herself feels like a child when Walter tells her what’s best. The eyes are the window to the soul and the mirror to her own soul. Walter is taking more than her art, he is taking her sense of self.

Margaret is reaching the breaking point.
Margaret is reaching the breaking point.

Burton’s other films such as Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie are fantasy stories. The plot elements are fantastical and require a departure from our reality. The big eye shots in Big Eyes don’t pull the story into another world but serve as something that can disappear in a shake of the head. These scenes are perhaps the only thing that could indicate you are watching a Burton film. Even then many other directors use fantastical elements to indicate a break from reality or a hallucination. Burton could have done something more over the top such as turning the world into a painting or have her paintings become alive. Instead he chose to think smaller thus keeping it line with realism the rest of the film.

Burton has done a biographical film before called Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp. It focused on the life of Hollywood’s worst director Ed Wood. It was shot in black and white to show the time and place of the story. It was the second Burton/Depp collaboration which continued to the next decade. Since it was biographical there were no fantasy elements as well but had plenty of quirky humor. In addition to his work in animation and Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is recognizable as Burton film. It has that off kilter sensibility, focuses on an outsider, and has the quirky sense humor you expect from Burton. Big Eyes does not have any of those typical attributes–though of all Burton’s work Big Eyes is most like Ed Wood. Both films focus on artists and do not rely on fantasy elements to sell the theme. Every plot element is in line with reality thus reaffirming to the audience these stories are true. Burton allows the the stories to speak for themselves without adding any of his usual exaggerations. His finger prints are not full on display in either of these films.

Big Eyes is a refreshing take on Tim Burton’s unique resume. While not a completely different film, Burton proved he is not just a niche director. He can work in a variety of genres with a variety of actors and tell a variety of stories. And that is all Hollywood could ask for in a feature film director. What the future for Burton holds is uncertain. Will he continue along a similar vein as his monster hits as Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland? Or will he continue to surprise audiences with a variety of stories and genres? Either way Big Eyes is a good sign of things to come.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Ocie Negrete

    I liked this film a lot but don’t see myself watching it again in the future it’s kind of been given the tick and now I can move onto the next thing.

  2. Burton Kind of lost it in the late 90s, he still occasionally makes good movies, but most of his recent output has been mediocre or poor. It’s like a different person and its not the same guy who made Batman/Edward Scissorhands/Ed Wood — he now makes commercial/reboot crap like Planet of the Apes/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/ Alice in Wonderland etc. Big Fish (even though it wasn’t one of his very best movies, was probably the last one I enjoyed) He’s become a bit of a hack over the last 15 years.

    • The last movie I really enjoyed by him was Sleepy Hollow – though Sweeney Todd was alright

  3. Aaron Hatch

    I love Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, But Tim Burton’s best film are the one where he steps out of his gothic art style. The films like Ed Wood, Big Fish, and of course Big Eyes are some of his best.

  4. Tim Burton is a favorite of mine, and I enjoy seeing him step out of his normal realm. I can’t say I was super impressed with Big Eyes, as the subject matter didn’t really draw me in, but I did enjoy seeing the nuances of Burton’s technique that don’t get as much attention in his fantasy films.

  5. I enjoyed this film for the most part. Perhaps my expectations were just too high, or too specific.

  6. I was really underwhelmed with Amy’s performance in this one.

  7. I see no evidence of Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter – are we sure this is Tim Burton’s work?

  8. I had a little bit of hope that the Tim Burton that made Ed Wood might reappear one day, but I think he no longer exists.

  9. harland

    Tim Burton needs to get back on whatever drugs he used to do.

  10. Tim Burton should have retired or at the very least take on a protege. Maybe he just should focus on cultivating new talent. He hasn’t made a watchable movie since Big Fish. Alice in Wonderland was ok I guess…..

  11. aileenmaeryan

    Excellent article. I particularly enjoyed how you discussed the use of setting in the film, as well as the transformation of Margaret’s character. Good job contextualizing the film with the gender roles of that time. I’ll keep your article in mind while watching the film!

  12. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Thank you for this article and the reminder to see this movie.

  13. This is true very well made biography drama about some painters and frauds.

  14. At least it’s better than the rehash films Burton recently made. I’m just glad he’s discovering new material for films.

  15. This has got to be the least Burton-esque movie I’ve ever seen.

  16. MedaRosario

    Burton has been nothing but dissapointment in the last years (with the exception of Frankenweenie maybe). But this one has me intrigued.

  17. Joe Manduke

    I believe this film is indicative of Burton’s ability to create outside of audience expectations.

  18. Bruno Kunkel

    I’d see this movie for Christoph Waltz.

  19. Big Eyes is an entertaining biopic!

  20. Spencer

    I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out – interesting exploration of how it’s a set apart from his other films.

  21. it sucks that Burton and Helena broke up.

  22. G Anderson Lake

    I was excited to rent Big Eyes after so much acclaim from critics and friends, but was shocked when I saw Burton’s name as director. My first reaction was exactly what you’re writing about, “this topic is much too grounded for Burton.”

    I was pleasantly surprised. I thought he handled the biopic fantastically, while removing enough of his style to not overwhelm the film. Actors seem to do this easily enough, but rarely do we see directors able to remove their personal touches from a film. To me this was like Wes Anderson directing a Tarantino-like film, it didn’t make sense but it was beautiful.

    I did think though that Burton didn’t have to put himself to much into the piece because that would somehow detract from the amazing story being told of another artist who seemed a bit out there for their time. In some ways I think he was recognizing that and paying respect to it.

  23. I am a big Tim Burton fan and so I was excited to watch “Big Eyes”. I too, was surprised at how it differed from most of his work. However, I think it must be taken into account that this was based on real life events. It does seem like an odd choice for Burton, but if he had added his traditional gothic and fantasy elements to the story it simply wouldn’t have made sense. I do see some commonality between this work and many others of his thematically however. The story is about a woman who is repressed by her husband and whose artwork definitley pushes the limits of what was considered good artwork at the time. Much like many of Burton’s characters: Edward Scissor hands, jack the pumpkin king, Ed Wood and others, Margaret Keane like them is a sort of outcast whose work is considered to be a little too “weird” for the world at first. Of course this theme is much more understated than it is in many of his other films. But I found it to be very refreshing to see him subtly implement this aspect of his style into a more “traditional” film.

  24. This definitely deviates from the same themes that Burton typically uses.

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