Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Directed by Tim Burton
Opens September 30
As film visionaries go, Tim Burton is one of the clunkiest out there. He’s barely able to maintain coherence of tone and rhythm, though the quality of his material (think Sweeney Todd with its genius Stephen Sondheim music and lyrics or Ed Wood with its ace screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) can occasionally do the heavy lifting. More often, Burton movies are only as good as their images. And as Hollywood cinema has become more and more CGI-reliant, this self-consciously outré auteur’s baroque visuals have frequently seemed weightless—dreams conjured by mainframe, not mortal.
Burton’s flaws are fully evident in his and screenwriter Jane Goldman’s adaptation of Ransom Riggs’s 2011 young adult novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. But his virtues are equally apparent, beginning with a sublime visual joke: a dissonant smash-cut from the stiltedly atmospheric opening credits sequence (very look-on-my-works-and-despair! in its mannered awe) to…an obscenely sunny Florida beach. These things do not fit, much as the film’s awkward teenage hero, Jake (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield, all growed up), seems out of place amid all the ranch houses and retirees.
A social outcast as the focal point of a Burton movie? You don’t say. Jake doesn’t have the iconic presence of Pee-Wee Herman or Edward Scissorhands, due in large part to Butterfield’s post-pubescent performative stiffness. (Should we term it Kodi Smit-McPhee Syndrome?) But he still makes for a serviceable guide to the film’s slowly revealed wonders, as Jake uncovers the magical legacy gifted to him by his grandfather (Terence Stamp).
In short: Our protagonist is a “peculiar”—a person with an otherworldly ability, one either coveted or feared by normal folks. In Jake’s case, he can see “hollowgasts,” ravenous demons with spindly legs and an eyeless, toothy head that resembles a Stephen King langolier. This talent comes in handy when he takes a therapist-mandated trip to Wales and discovers a “peculiar” orphanage—stuck in a WWII-era time loop—run by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, a goddess o’course). She’s a charmingly prim-‘n’-proper headmistress who can morph into a bird, and whose biggest concern is protecting her young charges from hollowgast leader Barron (Samuel L. Jackson, reprising Mr. Glass from Unbreakable), a shock-white-haired villain with a dual hunger for immortality and children’s eyeballs.
Did a word of that make a lick of sense? Really, this veddy veddy YA plotline (the youthful wretch turned valiant protector/savior, and the outlandish characters who assist him) is just an excuse for Burton to do some kooky id-splaying. You can see it in the cowlick twirl of Miss Peregrine’s hair (easy to imagine Burton toiling over his sketchpad for hours, getting that coiffure just right). You can sense it in the resonant recurring image of Jake tugging his gravity-defying love interest Emma (Ella Purnell) through the air like a kite. Even the primarily computer-generated climactic battle scene between the hollowgasts and an army of Harryhausen-esque skeletons has the aura of the profoundly personal about it.
Debatable whether the images add up to much outside of each pleasurable moment. But there’s still a fullness of imagination and artistry here that’s become increasingly rare in Burton’s work. It’s nice to see him, even if only temporarily, back on point.