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Ranking Danny Elfman's soundtracks for Dumbo director Tim Burton


On release now in Cineworld, Dumbo continues one of the most fruitful and creative director-composer partnerships in film.

We are of course talking about the union between gothic maestro Tim Burton and his musical partner-in-crime Danny Elfman, whose association stretches back to the mid-1980s. They're at it again with the new live-action Disney remake, one that puts a fresh spin on the flying elephant who becomes a star circus attraction.

Elfman's characteristic use of choir and chimes is very evident in the theme for Dumbo himself – those familiar with Elfman's previous scores for Burton will find much to enjoy in the following clip, which demonstrates the composer's empathy towards the endearing central character.

While we celebrate the ongoing Burton-Elfman collaboration, we've decided to rank their previous scores together. Which will emerge on top? Scroll down to find out.

14. Dark Shadows (2012)

In at the bottom is a typically Gothic Elfman score for a somewhat misfiring Burton movie. The director adapts the kitsch 1960s TV show for the big screen with middling results, although Johnny Depp's fish-out-of-water vampire act is amusing. And we can always trust Elfman to lend a portentous, shadowy sense of mystery to Burton's lavishly appointed sets.

13. Big Eyes (2014)

Forget the la la choirs, bouncy rhythms and sense of whimsy. Elfman's score for Big Eyes is one of his most atypical Burton soundtracks, and all the better for it. Burton's movie focuses on the real-life court battle between husband-wife art pair Margaret and Walter Keane (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), and Elfman's music is refreshingly down-to-Earth as a result.

12. Big Fish (2003)

Amazingly, this is the only score from the Burton-Elfman partnership to be Oscar-nominated. Just as the film is a quirky crossroads between reality and tall tales (central cross-generational duo Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor are a delight), so too does Elfman's score combine hybrid styles. By turns ethereal, magical and drawing on earthy American deep south tradition, it's a varied, striking soundtrack.

11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Elfman digs into his bag of musical tricks for Burton's vibrant Roald Dahl adaptation. The swirling choir and intricate instrumental arrangements are characteristic of the composer's style, and of course the movie's song and dance numbers for the Oompa Loompas allow Elfman to dip back into his songwriting roots. (He was formerly a member of rock group Oingo Boingo.) Our favourite: the psychadelic arrangement for the bratty Veruca Salt.

10. Corpse Bride (2005)

Burton returned to stop-motion animation with this story of a star-crossed romance between a lonely man and his undead paramour. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are the main vocal pairing, and Elfman's score is a delight. Once again drawing on fairy tale and ballet tradition, it resounds with a sense of the macabre and also the tragic, as the titular corpse bride's melancholy backstory hoves into view. Plus the Elfman-penned song 'Remains of the Day' is a riot.

9. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Elfman and Burton fell out during the post-production of The Nightmare Before Christmas, so he didn't score what is arguably the director's finest movie, Ed Wood. (The job instead went to Howard Shore.) Nevertheless they patched up their differences on anarchic martian comedy Mars Attacks!, Elfman unleashing the full, woozy sci-fi sound of the theremin and plenty of aggressive orchestration to capture the chaotic storyline.

8. Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

Hailing from a rock background, Elfman was relatively inexperienced in an orchestral sense when he first met Burton. (In fact, he had only one other film credit to his name.) Nevertheless the director enlisted him for this wacky comedy, in which Paul Reubens stars as a man-child who is out to reclaim his stolen bike. The rambunctious 'Breakfast Machine' track would cement many of Elfman's eventual musical mannerisms.

7. Planet of the Apes (2001)

The delicacy and enchantment of many Burton-Elfman partnerships goes out of the window for this derided sci-fi remake. In its place comes percussion, lots of percussion, and a full-throated brass section to conjure a score that is appropriately animalistic. It's a powerful score for a weak Burton movie, continuing the legacy of previous Apes composers like Jerry Goldsmith.

6. Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Mia Wasikowska's Alice is on a journey back to Wonderland in Burton's blockbusting live-action Disney movie. And Elfman's score grows in stature along with her as she fulfils her destiny to overthrow the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). The composer's stirring vocal theme, embellished with Elfman's usual offbeat touches, takes the form of a rhyme to tell the title character's story: "Oh Alice dear, where have you been? So near, so far, so in-between."

5. Batman Returns (1992)

Elfman's first Batman score defined the gothic sound of the Dark Knight, but he switched up the tone somewhat for sequel Batman Returns. Burton's sequel is far darker and more twisted than its predecessor, exhibiting sympathy for its macabre set of villains. Elfman's score therefore follows suit, deploying the full force of orchestra and tear-jerking choir for Penguin (Danny DeVito), while Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is treated to a host of keening, uncomfortable strings.

4. Beetlejuice (1988)

Burton's first major box office success was this maniacal horror-comedy, which unleashes Michael Keaton as a madcap 'bio-exorcist'. As one would expect, Elfman's score is as crazed and diverse as the movie itself, employing oompah-style brass band arrangements, choral lullabys and pastiche, organ-led gothic horror to accentuate Burton's wicked sense of humour.

3. Batman (1989)

Best superhero score of all time? John Williams's Superman is up there in terms of defining the Man of Steel. But when it comes to the Caped Crusader, Elfman takes the cake. (Sorry Hans Zimmer fans.) The richly bombastic and Gothic sound of the Batman theme and its assorted variations, performed by the Philharmonia of London orchestra, set the standard for every brooding superhero score that followed.

2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Let's address the elephant in the room: Burton didn't direct this macabre stop-motion fantasy – it was Henry Selick. However, the film's moonlit-laden, skeletal landscape did spring from Burton's original concept, and his fingerprints are all over the film's visual design. It's the same with the score: this is the closest we've ever had to an Elfman musical, the thunderous brass band arrangements underpinned with deliciously ghoulish lyrics. It's outrageously imaginative and utterly characteristic of this composer.

1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Elfman's balletic and delicate musical sensibility found no greater outlet than Edward Scissorhands, Burton's most personal and heart-wrenching movie. Johnny Depp is the outsider in American suburbia who is cruelly judged for his appearance, and Elfman's breathtakingly lovely score paints his story as a timeless tragedy. Boys' choir, gentle strings and celeste all give the feeling of being enveloped in a wondrous fairy tale snowstorm – utterly appropriate given the story.

If you haven't yet seen the movie, click here to book your Dumbo tickets and let us know @Cineworld where it ranks in the catalogue of Burton-Elfman classics. 

In the meantime, we'll leave you with some more quintessential Elfman magic from the new Disney movie.