The conventional wisdom about early-career Tim Burton is that he was an imaginative visual stylist but not a great storyteller. That sounds smart, right? It’s still something that a certain kind of ratty-beard-stroking film critic keeps tucked in his sweater vest in case he needs to say something that sounds discerning and Frasier Crane-ish about Frankenweenie. It's true, for the most part, that Burton isn’t an originator of great premises. He adapts novels, updates old stories, recontextualizes the familiar and works with like-minded actors, writers and animators. Practically the worst thing you could say is that his command of narrative is competent.
But it’s an undeniable fact that over his four-decade career, Burton has created fantastic characters who are now permanent installations in the popular imagination — no other filmmaker would have conceived the likes of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood. In this Burton is brilliant, and it's a credit to his good taste that those roles are also outstanding collaborations with their respective actors.
Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) is another. With her exaggerated eyes, pointy shoulders and gothic aesthetic, she’s as visually indelible as any Burton creation, and instantly recognizable as his. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children isn’t a passion project for Burton — it’s another adaptation, based on the young-adult novels by Ransom Riggs, but it’s perfectly aligned with the director's theory of outsider exceptionalism. Aren’t all of Burton’s films about peculiar children?
After an attack by a creepy, Slender Man–looking monster, Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) discovers that the world contains hidden, magical geographies and that his grandfather (Terence Stamp) had spent his life mapping them. Following his grandfather’s dying wish, Jake convinces his dad (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales so he can search for one of these magic places, called a “loop,” located near the bombed-out ruins of a children’s hospital.
There, he meets Miss Peregrine, a magical being who can transform into a falcon and create loops in time, within which she can eternally relive the same day in 1943 — hiding inside it in order to protect her “peculiars,” children born with physical and supernatural abilities for which society has rejected them, which is generally how young-adult fiction conceptualizes superpowers.
Green creates a flinty, authoritarian Mary Poppins, a hypercompetent figure surrounded by clocks who insists on strict punctuality — at precisely 9:00 p.m. each night, a Nazi bomb destroys the school, Groundhog Day–style, so the kids must go outside. She laces the character’s sternness with a vein of warmth, even while stalking briskly across the lawn with a crossbow to face the daily monster attack.
This world is threatened by “wights,” creatures that seek peculiar children in order to eat their eyeballs (long story, but there’s some quality eyeball feasting). Samuel L. Jackson is Barron, a wight who hopes to kidnap Miss Peregrine and steal her temporal powers. Generally, the climaxes of these kinds of films are huge and numbing; Burton scales his finale down to the size of a tourist boardwalk for an unexpectedly gripping crowd-pleaser of an action scene in which the peculiar children unite and combine their strengths against the wights and giant, eyeless creatures called hollowgasts.
Though the cast includes a large number of peculiar children, Burton stamps each one with individual quirks, wardrobes and Burton-y silhouettes — there’s a tiny girl named Bronwyn (Pixie Davies) who has Victorian curls and superhuman strength; a teenage boy named Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) who can animate non-living objects, often to horrific effect; and Emma, who controls air and has to wear ornamented lead boots so she won’t float away into the sky. There are others, and after Green, they’re the primary source of the film’s joy.
Unfortunately, Jake, the film’s most important peculiar, is also its dullest. Butterfield’s a good actor, but Jake came to Narnia straight out of Boringville and doesn’t know the local customs, which include being interesting — waistcoats on children! Invisible boys! The cultivation of horse-sized vegetables! Transforming into animals! Jake tries to impress a girl with his iPhone. SMH. But the film mostly makes up for him with some great moments: Emma’s resurfacing of a long-sunken luxury ocean liner; the marshalling of an army of furious skeletons for a battle with monsters; almost everything that Eva Green says and does.
The difference between the younger Burton and the experienced, middle-aged Burton is a newfound interest in the turmoil that happens at boundaries. In Beetlejuice, the supposedly real, everyday world is almost as weird as the afterlife, populated by cartoonish weirdos in jumpsuits and women with beehive hairdos. The suburban landscape of Edward Scissorhands features Stepford neighbors and a gothic mansion on a precipitous bluff. Burton’s Gotham City was as untethered from reality as Wonderland, like a collaboration between Fritz Lang and Doctor Seuss. Back then, Burton preferred transforming reality to reflecting it.
In Miss Peregrine, the mundane world and the realm of the fantastic are sharply delineated. Jake’s Florida looks like Florida. His dad is as dull as a Docker’s catalog — the Irish O’Dowd, normally a highly expressive comic actor, puts on an American accent as flat as his character. When Jake crosses the threshold into the imaginative frontier of Miss Peregrine’s loop, the contrast between those two worlds is sharp, conceived by a way better director than a film targeted at teenagers usually gets.
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