Tim Burton has always been a director of more style than substance. His is a visual flair unrivaled by his peers and influential on his descendants, but his movies have always lacked in the department of depth—a few noteworthy moments aside. To follow Burton’s career is to see a director struggling between dueling sensibilities of artistic genius and commercial sell-sword. For every Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, there’s a Planet of the Apes and Dark Shadows. And as both he and his films grow older, his visual flair becomes less entrancing than it was in years past. Even his former successes, Batman and Batman Returns, for instance, fail on subsequent viewings that disregard nostalgia as a noteworthy component of film.
But it’s really been the last 15 years that’s seen the decline of Burton. Perhaps more than any other director, it’s easy to pinpoint the moment of his descent. Planet of the Apes was an ill-advised mess that first revealed the proverbial cracks in his foundation—his style was there, sure, but was anything holding it up? Had there ever been anything more? When discussing Burton today, it’s tempting to discuss a formerly great director whose best years are behind him, but what if the problem is deeper than that? What if Burton, for all his glory, is a mediocre director who occasionally hits?
I suspect how you feel about that question will tell a lot about how you’ll feel about Burton’s latest, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. For some, the temptation to declare this to be Burton’s return to form will be too great to ignore—and, indeed, that classic Burton flair for the bizarre and the macabre is out in full force near from the beginning. But to focus on that is to ignore the obvious. Perhaps Burton never left us; perhaps he just ran out of things to say. In the absence of substance, style only means so much, and never is this more apparent than in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Based on the series of young adult novels by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children can most easily be pitched as a cross between Harry Potter and X-Men. Jake (Asa Butterfield) believes himself to be a regular boy living a regular life, but he’s got a latent specialness just waiting to be discovered. Following the mysterious murder of his grandfather, Jake and his father travel to Wales to search for an old children’s home his grandfather always talked about. Though at first he finds only a bombed out shell of a building, he’s soon led on a path that takes him back in time to the 1940’s, where the home is alive and filled with children, watched over by their matron, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).
Miss Peregrine’s wards are afflicted (blessed?) with a genetic abnormality known as “peculiarity.” They live in isolation, far away from the outside world and, in fact, far away from outside time. Miss Peregrine has the power to reset any 24-hour period, allowing the children to be free in their peculiarity for all time, living the same day over and over again. Their serene existence is threatened, however, by the nefarious Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) who, along with his cohorts, has discovered that the secret to immortality lies in the eating of the eyes of peculiar children. Now, it’s up to date Jake, and his burgeoning peculiarity, to protect his new friends from the ravages of Mr. Barron and the prying eyes of the outside world.
Looking over those previous two paragraphs, I must admit the tinge of excitement sent rippling up my spine. This story, on paper, is the exact story I’ve never known I’ve always wanted and, while I’m at least 20 years older than the target demographic of the series of novels, I think I kind of want to read them. That description implies a sense of magic and wonder that speaks to the inner child of every jaded adult, and a longing for a life that is, perhaps, a bit more peculiar than our day to day. Burton, however, fails to guide the narrative along its inherently wondrous path. Under his guiding hand, the magic never quite materializes, instead becoming an exercise of rote sensibilities.
Indeed, at times it almost felt as though Burton forgot to show up at all. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is less a movie directed by “Tim Burton” and more a movie directed by the “Tim Burton Brand.” While his attachment to the project may elicit cries of “OMG that’s PERF” at no point does it ever gel into anything unique, magical, or even interesting. I often found myself blushing in secondhand embarrassment for all involved in the making of this movie, none of whom, besides Green, seem to be taking it seriously.
Green, like Winona Ryder and Helena Bonham Carter before her, is an actress whose look and capabilities feel tailor made for Burton’s oeuvre, and any hint or promise of magic found within Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar children is thanks mostly to her. More than anyone, in front of the camera or behind, Green seems to be only one with any recognition of the fact that, in order for this film to work, it must be fun. And though she is a lot of fun, by the end of the film her enthusiasm has the distinct air of someone who’s tried for hours to get her party guests to enjoy themselves to no avail.
Everyone else plods around uselessly, without any clear purpose or point. This may be due to the poor script from writer Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass) who makes the baffling choice to handhold the audience through scene after scene of endless exposition. This undying need for continual explanation hinders any hope the movie may have had to find its inner magic, and the whole process falls apart because of it.
It certainly doesn’t help that Burton wields his guiding hand as more of an iron fist, infusing nearly every frame with an undue heaviness that ensures it never soars. More and more, however, that seems to be par for the course for Burton. Where once his hand held the promise of whimsy, it now feels rather like a burden. In that way, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children seems like the perfect cap to the last decade-and-a-half of his career which, taken in sum, might in fact speak ill towards his entire catalogue. At this point, his hits and successes are growing smaller and smaller in the rearview, and holding less and less weight in his body overall. The more he misses, the more we’re forced to wonder: was it the magic that was the fluke? I almost hate to say it but it’s looking suspiciously like the answer to that question is “yes.”
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is now playing in theaters everywhere.