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Iconic Tim Burton Characters Ranked

The success of a film is either made or broken by the characters portrayed on screen. Rich histories, wild personalities, and unique styles of performance all punctuate the narrative and draw audiences in. After all, who wants to root for a bland character with no sense of purpose or importance? Even villains can become relatable for character traits that evolve out of typical human emotions like greed, envy, anger, depression, and any other form of anguish that may be common in our world. The best stories are told by creators who construct characters that will endure decades or even a lifetime in the minds of fans and audiences.

Storied filmmaker Tim Burton creates worlds filled to the brim with oddities, dark humor, and unforgettable characters that shock and delight. The director has created some of the most distinctive characters in cinema history, while also taking established characters like Willy Wonka and adding new shades and colors to their legacy. Whatever the case may be, Burton's style is unmistakable. With a long and wide filmography to explore, let's take a look at Tim Burton's most iconic characters.

12. Victor Von Dort from Corpse Bride

Tim Burton has a fondness for the Victorian age. "Corpse Bride" is just one of many of his productions set in that period. Additionally, he favored — at least for a long time – Johnny Depp for his leading roles. Victor Von Dort was the actor's first ever animated role. In "Corpse Bride" Victor is the mild-mannered son of wealthy self-made fish merchants. In an attempt to raise their social status, his parents arrange for his marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson), the daughter of established aristocrats. After fumbling at his wedding rehearsal, Victor leaves in shame.

The narrative really takes hold when Victor places the wedding ring in his possession on a twig in the forest not realizing it was the finger of a corpse — a young bride (Helena Bonham Carter) who was murdered to be precise. She whisks Victor away to the Land of the Dead, accepting the ring as a proposal for marriage. Now realizing his error, Victor does all he can to return to Victoria. Despite the arranged marriage, he truly loves her. The drama that ensues makes for a rousing love story, complete with revelations in the final act, while Victor and the Corpse Bride are instantly recognizable figures to this day.

11. Lydia from Beetlejuice

After Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam Maitland (Alec Baldwin) tragically perish just a few minutes into "Beetlejuice," their idyllic home in rural Connecticut is purchased by the aristocratic Deetz family. Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones) obtained his wealth through his career as a real estate developer in New York City. His current wife Della (Catherine O'Hara), is an artist who fancies her own work as the cream of the crop. The snobbish couple also have a daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), whose persona is a complete 180-degree shift from that of her eccentric parents. Goth in appearance, she's curious about the dark and morbid aspects of life and death.

Lydia quickly discovers the ghosts of Barbara and Adam. They wish to be left alone, but are struggling to haunt the Deetz family in an effort to scare them off the premises. Lydia sympathizes with their plight and does whatever she can to protect them from her encroaching family. Eventually Betelgeuse joins the party and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Barbara and Adam, however, are the caring, non-materialistic parents Lydia clearly always longed for. Her devotion to the Maitlands and sensitivity to life beyond death solidified the character as a fan favorite. She'd eventually take a lead role in the "Beetlejuice" animated series alongside the titular character himself.

10. Emily from Corpse Bride

Seen as a sort of spiritual successor to "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Corpse Bride" mimicked a similar aesthetic aside from being another claymation film. Helena Bonham Carter was another actor favored by director Tim Burton — especially during the period in which they were romantically involved. Carter provided the voice behind Emily, the titular character. As the Corpse Bride, she sought to continue the happiness she lost by pushing Victor into marrying her and joining her in the land of the dead.

Ultimately, the Corpse Bride displays a bit of heroism as she ultimately sacrifices her happiness to allow Victor and Victoria the chance to live a full life together – something she was robbed of. She even springs into action and saves Victor's life during a third act conflict with her revealed former flame and murderer, Lord Barkis Bittem. Barkis only seeks a union with Victoria in an effort to gain access to her alleged wealth. The last laugh is on Barkis, when he haplessly drinks the poison intended to send Victor to the land of the dead. While she never obtains an eternal soulmate, the Corpse Bride is able to obtain justice for the crime committed against her.

9. Sparky from Frankenweenie

In 1984, Burton directed a short film entitled "Frankenweenie" about a boy who seeks to resurrect his beloved dog. In 2012, Burton remade his short — an obvious love letter to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" — as a feature-length stop-motion movie similar to previous works like "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" and released it in theaters.

The story follows the same narrative as the short. A young boy scientist, Victor Frankenstein, has a strong connection with his dog, Sparky. After his father prods him to take up other activities outside of his science fixations, Victor begins playing baseball. During his first game, Victor hits a home run and Sparky pursues the ball but is tragically killed by a car. Despite Victor's grief, he learns in school that even dead creatures can be stimulated again by electrical impulses. This is enough for Victor to begin plotting Sparky's resurrection. He digs up the canine and creates a laboratory in his attic where he successfully reanimates the dog with — you guessed it — a lightning strike. Once word of Victor's deed spreads, chaos ensues as others want to see their dead pets resurrected also.

While classmates hastily experiment on their own pets, it is only Sparky who ever truly retains his purity and soul. His story plucks at the heartstrings of audiences, many of whom probably wish they could bring beloved pets back from the grave. But the notion is not entirely without consequence, as "Frankenweenie" shows us. Thankfully for Victor, Sparky's ending is a happy one.

8. The Penguin from Batman Returns

Oswald Cobblepot's (Danny Devito) origin in the Tim Burton film "Batman Returns" takes a rather dark turn early on. In Burton's version of the villain's tale, Cobblepot is born deformed with flipper-esque hands not unlike a penguin. The child is also portrayed as ravenous, completely destroying the family cat. So his parents take rather drastic measures, attempting infanticide by tossing the child over a bridge and into a creek (this is just the first five minutes of the film). 

Instead of suffering an early demise, little Oswald is raised by the very creatures living in the sewers under Gotham City — specifically, an apparent penguin population that has sprung up thanks to an old abandoned zoo. Later as an adult, Cobblepot, known as "the Penguin," is running a criminal organization. Eventually, he makes his way to the surface to run for mayor and frame Batman (Michael Keaton) with the help of corrupt business tycoon Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). As conceived by Burton, Penguin proves to be a hideous, sinister yet strangely sad villain, especially against the backdrop of being rejected by his parents.

7. The Martians from Mars Attacks!

Despite a rather large ensemble cast, Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996) didn't perform to expectations and was ultimately considered a box office failure. Boasting the likes of Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, and many others, the movie made the rounds on television over the years and garnered a cult appreciation for its aesthetic and dark humor. Burton fashioned an invasion film the exact same year as the financially successful "Independence Day," but the tone was wholly different. Most of Burton's characters were despicable or unsavory, so we almost laughed as the star-studded cast was constantly being vaporized by alien ray guns. No single star really held the spotlight for too long.

There wasn't any one particular Martian character that stole the show either. Instead, the skeletal, homunculus-like aliens with oversized brains were nightmare fuel for children of the '90s despite the comedic tone the film strove for. If anything about this film is memorable, it's the Martians, complete in their design with their terrible cackling and sinister pursuit of humanity's destruction. In a fortunate turn of events, it isn't humanity's military might or earthly disease and pestilence that end the alien threat, but the howling vocals of Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" that cause the Martian invaders' brains to implode. Whitman is a true American hero.

6. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

One of Burton's more gruesome projects, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a musical drama about a serial killing barber in the Victorian age, adapted from the 1979 stage musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim. Johnny Depp plays the title role, a man who's done dirty by a corrupt judge and exiled for a crime he didn't commit. He returns under the alias of Sweeney Todd many years later and establishes his barber shop on Fleet Street. Below his shop is Nellie Lovett's meat pie shop, where Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) tells Todd of the horrible misdeeds committed by the judge, claiming he ultimately caused the death of Todd's wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) while now keeping Todd's daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), as his ward.

That's enough for Todd to begin murdering clientele and sharing the bodies with Lovett to use in her meat pies, with the ultimate aim of having the judge sit in the barber's chair. But those plans go awry as revelations in the final act of the film paint an entirely different picture for Todd. Macabre and graphic by nature, Burton's take on the hit musical rocketed the demon barber to larger pop culture fame.

5. Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

In 1993, Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" came bounding into theaters and unleashed a fan following that would continue to endure this very day. The music, stop-motion animation, and characters would all coalesce into a cherished holiday film. In the movie, Sally (Catherine O'Hara), a creation of mad scientist Dr. Finklestein, embarks on a quest to save the "Pumpkin King of Halloween Town," Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), from getting carried away with his embrace of a new holiday — Christmas.

Soft-spoken and kind-hearted, Sally always manages to subvert her creator's need to control her by escaping the confines of his laboratory and exploring the outside world. Almost innocent like a child, she instantly takes a liking to Jack and even supports his idea of creating his own form of Christmas madness, until she receives a bad omen suggesting the whole affair will go down in flames. After being pushed aside by Jack's lofty goals, she tries to be a hero by at least attempting to free Santa from the villainous Oogie Boogie. As a character, Sally is a reminder that we don't have to strive to be something we're not. We are wonderful the way we are and someone, like Sally, will always notice that.

4. The Joker from Batman

In Tim Burton's world, the Joker (Jack Nicholson) originates as prominent gangster Jack Napier, intent on obtaining power in Gotham City. When one is already a sociopathic criminal, tipping the scales over into psychopathic madness is really not a stretch. Sent by his equally twisted boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), to retrieve incriminatory evidence against Grissom's crime syndicate, Napier infiltrates Axis Chemicals. During a skirmish with the GCPD and Batman, Napier falls into a vat of toxic chemicals.

With his bleached skin and green-stained hair, Napier — now calling himself the Joker — makes himself known to his colleagues. The toxins that affect his mind destroy his inhibitions and release Joker to bump off his own boss and take control of the Gotham underworld in a swift coup. Burton's version of the character has many similarities to the villain's past comic book appearances, with Burton disfiguring his Joker and forcing his face into a permanent smile. Despite his madness, Joker still retains a semblance of his former life, acting more as a gangster than a colorfully deranged villain. Nicholson gives the character the black humor and sarcastic wit to make this Joker a classic to be remembered.

3. Edward from Edward Scissorhands

"Edward Scissorhands" marked the beginning of Johnny Depp's and Tim Burton's lengthy professional relationship. While Depp would eventually become an A-list Hollywood actor, many of his starring roles were in films directed by his friend, Burton. "Edward Scissorhands" is a romantic story about forbidden love. The titular character is an artificial being created by an inventor (Vincent Price). Before Edward can be completed, however, his creator passes away, leaving him in an unfinished state with scissors for hands. For years, Edward lives alone in the old mansion in which he was created, until he is discovered by local saleswoman Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) and brought into town.

The element that resonates with audiences is Edward's kind-hearted nature and, more importantly, his love for Peg's daughter Kim (Winona Ryder). Kim's boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), becomes envious of the obvious connection between the two. Conflict ensues when Jim and other townsfolk who dislike Edward attempt to disparage his character. Burton's fantasy has endured alongside other films centered on "forbidden love" and "fear of the other," with Edward remaining an indelible metaphor for both.

2. Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas

The face of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," Jack Skellington's songs and musings on the joy-filled Christmas season and his place in the universe will forever be synonymous with the film. As the Pumpkin King in Halloweentown, Jack Skellington leads the troupe of critters, monsters, and ghouls in the Halloween festivities as they seek to scare the wits out of the world population. 

The tale of Jack Skellington is really a story most of the living actually experience, albeit in an entirely different setting. Jack endures what many of us call a mid-life crisis. After countless years of doing the same thing, Jack begins to feel unfulfilled, like he is stuck in a rut. After discovering Christmas, he seeks to harness the glory of that holiday for himself. Ultimately, he learns that being himself is just fine and that even while being the Pumpkin King, he doesn't have to relegate himself to the same routine — in other words, he can improve. It's a timeless story, that despite having no sequels has remained a pop culture fixture due to vibrant merchandising from Disney and its partners each year around the holidays. The film also garners new fans every year.

1. Betelgeuse from Beetlejuice

It's impossible to discuss Burton's career without finishing up with the raving spook Betelgeuse (pronounced as Beetlejuice). Betelgeuse prides himself in his ability to haunt the living. As an undead being he's a cartoon brought to life, constantly zipping and zapping monstrosities into existence and even shape-shifting himself all for a good joke or as a visual aid for his sarcastic wit. Desperate to rid the Deetz family from their earthly home, the Maitlands, who are newly undead spirits, call upon Betelgeuse to do the heavy lifting.

In the afterlife, Betelgeuse is seen as an outcast and a constant thorn in the side of the management as he tends to wreak havoc whenever called upon. He's messy and always making the afterlife known to the living — a rule he's constantly broken. After the Maitlands befriend Lydia, they don't want her put in harm's way. Unsure of what Betelgeuse might do, they attempt to put the genie back in the bottle and live with the Deetz family under their roof. It's only when Lydia's parents seek to capitalize off the supernatural presences they've seen in the home that everything takes a turn and Betelgeuse is called back into play for a final go at the Deetz family. The movie is wild, raucous, and completely original for its time. Memorable for his humorous ramblings and constant jokes, Betelgeuse is perhaps Tim Burton's most iconic character.