starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O'Dowd, Samuel L. Jackson
screenplay by Jane Goldman, based upon the novel by Ransom Riggs
directed by Tim Burton
by Walter Chaw The right material and collaborator can bring out the best in Tim Burton, but it's mostly a one-way street. Before it soured, his work with Johnny Depp compelled because of the pathos Depp imported into projects like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. When Burton lands the right material, as he did with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, he's capable of masterpieces. I would argue that his most personal picture by far, the only one that plumbs the exquisite gulfs of loneliness and disconnection suggested by his other pieces, is Batman Returns. There's a scene in it where Bruce Wayne drinks soup, recoils that it's cold, then digs in again without hesitation when told by his long-term keeper that it's supposed to be. Bruce is a broken clockwork and wholly dependent; it's a fascinating read of the Batman character. Burton's Catwoman is the purest representation of the gender injustice that results in her mania and rise to power. The film is a spiritual predecessor to Burton's poetry collection The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories, the contents of which speak of misbegotten births, misunderstood childhoods, and unimaginable betrayals that lead to lonesome deaths. These themes are always on the periphery of Burton's films. I wonder if as he's gotten more monolithic whether they don't become commensurately more difficult to tease out.
On the surface, it's easy to see why Burton was drawn to Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, the first third of a YA trilogy inspired, in part or in whole, by Riggs's discovery of weird old photographs at rummage sales and thrift shops. It concerns a group of "peculiar" children, naturally, under the care of the titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, brittle). They exist in a time loop--one halcyon autumn day relived over and over in a September during WWII, immediately before a Nazi bomb reduced their refuge to cinder. Into this haven comes Jake (Asa Butterfield), discovering that his dotty, Big Fish-ian grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who has woven tall tales about the place Jake's whole life, wasn't kidding after all. Abe has been killed by something called a "Hollowghast" (what Jack Skellington would look like if Clive Barker had collaborated on the design), leaving behind directions for the home's discovery and dire warnings for the coming conflagration. Burton is best dealing with the melancholic notion that these children are essentially photographs of kids long since dead, consumed by time and war. Emma (Ella Purnell), another of Burton's big-eyed blonde waifs (she looks a great deal like Christina Ricci in his Sleepy Hollow), tells Jake that were she ever to join him in the present, all these time loops would catch up to her in minutes. That this doesn't seem to be true during the film's extended finale is one of its major internal disappointments. Alas, there are myriad.
The children (one causes plants to grow, one is strong, one is invisible, one sets things on fire) are the sum of their abilities. The exception is Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who's given a bit of depth I think because he's a literal animator, a character after Burton's own heart. Enoch's ability is that he can make inanimate things animate with the insertion of little animal hearts. He's also jealous of Jake, though it's not clear if he's jealous because he fears Jake is interested in Enoch's girlfriend Olive (Lauren McCrostie) or Emma. Maybe he's jealous that Jake can age, but that concept doesn't seem friendly to the Burton treatment. Enoch is the catalyst for a conclusion in which Burton, who's directed and/or produced some fine stop-motion features, pays tribute to Ray Harryhausen, as all animators do eventually and as Burton himself did before in the animated Frankenweenie. One problem with Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is that the characters are relatively impersonal pieces in a greater contraption--and the contraption itself doesn't have a clear purpose. Another problem is that the bad guy, Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), a child's-eyeball-eating ghoul (who indulges in this in a needlessly grotesque scene) in a Mr. Glass haircut, is given to Samuel L. Jackson monologuing and Samuel L. Jackson scene-stealing. He's not peculiar, he's irritating. The essential issue, though, is that Burton might only be truly effective when his heroes are misfits. Imagine a Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that has Augustus Gloop as the hero, or a Miss Peregrine's with Enoch at its centre. The only time I could discern a flutter of real enthusiasm from Burton is in this half-measure of making Enoch substantive. It's telling that he even tries.
The entire third act of the film is disloyal to the book. The children's peculiarities are shuffled around. Fans of Riggs will find much to like in the images (a moment where Jake runs along the beach with Emma--who floats, trailing on a rope behind him like one of Fellini's most gorgeous daydreams--is haunting and far too brief) and less to love in a narrative that succumbs to the pressure to provide bombast in a picture that's only ever effective in miniature. Consider the rowboats lost at sea of the novel, replaced in the film by a luxury liner raised, Titanic-like, from its grave. Consider, too, a scene where Jake is about to make a terrible discovery under the cruel ministrations of Enoch and they pass a room where a few of the other peculiar children are playing. "Don't go with him," one says. "Come play with us." And you wish he would. The periphery is more compelling than anything happening on the proscenium here. It's a common problem of Burton's, who, I suspect, is himself more interested in the minutiae than in the central plot and character arcs. The result, not atypical for Burton, is that the picture is at once hectic and torpid. It's a frustrating adaptation because the film doesn't share its creator's interests: Riggs's interest is in Jake's growth, Burton's is in funny topiaries, and kids lost on a temporal island of misfit toys. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is two competing visions equivocated by a market demand for big showdowns between good and evil, staged on huge sets, and set up for a sequel that it's questionable anyone will really want.