Though not reaching the quality of his peak output, Tim Burton's latest is an improvement over his recent work.
Even as Tim Burton's latest phantasmic studio sprawl tends toward momentum of the inert variety, it proves all the more that the filmmaker is indeed moving through time.
Not quite 60 years old, Burton is still too young to qualify as an old man. Yet, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children finds itself often in the realm of what's been labeled "old man cinema" - that outwardly laconic pace that defines tail-end work by prominent directors. Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa, Buddy Buddy by Billy Wilder. This isn't that, but like the older Spielberg and Scorsese of today, we're officially now seeing hints of it.
Burton’s emerging aged sensibilities are no less imaginative and transportive than his work was at his fevered, newfangled best all those years ago (Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) - even if his film preceding this one, the restrained Big Eyes, briefly gave us reason to wonder.
Nonetheless, a Tim Burton film is always first and foremost a Tim Burton film. That said, Miss Peregrine's, detailing the training and exploits of super-powered outcast youths amid island terrain, offers glimpses of what it might've been like if Ingmar Bergman had directed an X-Men movie. There's a floating girl who must wear lead shoes (Ella Purnell). There's a fire-starting girl with bright red hair (Lauren McCrostie). There's a boy, whom with the help of a special lens monocle, can project his dreams like movies (Hayden Keeler-Stone). There's a cute little girl with a secret razor toothed goblin mouth behind her head (Raffiella Chapman). And there are several more. Samuel L. Jackson is a ghoul who wants to kill them all.
In the film, it is both 2016 and 1943. When old man Terence Stamp (Burton’s adoration of aged Brit actors persists wonderfully, having cycled through Vincent Price then Christopher Lee) finally loses his mind once and for all, and is discovered dying in the woods, sans eyes, by his loving if exasperated grandson Jake (Asa Butterfield, good if innocuous), it’s soon clear that maybe grandpa wasn’t quite so loopy after all. Something happened to him in World War II, something unlike any other story about something that happened to somebody in the war.
Even in his dying moments in that foggy ditch in the wood at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Stamp’s character, actually called Abe, has always been peculiar. It turns out he had come upon and taken up with a home away from home that no one knew about. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Miss Peregrine’s world is Old World, Edwardian and proper. Which only begins to describe Miss Peregrine herself, as played brilliantly by Eva Green. A pipe smoking headmistress in a pronounced and angular dark blue dress, Peregrine isn’t afraid to take up a crossbow in defense of her boarders, a small grouping of unusual children and teenagers. In fact, she does every single day, with the aid her trusty stopwatch.
This would be an ideal time to mention that everyone in Miss Peregrine’s Home is there because they wield a specific ability. Perhaps these are the very kids depicted in those unsettling kitsch/creepy vintage photographs, the sepia toned or black and white shots of cute little cherubs with fangs, or older kids with dead eyes and fire around them, or twins with clownish burlap sacks covering their faces, teasing dread for what’s underneath. There’s a crude obviousness about the manipulation apparent in these pre-Photoshop photographs that surface on the cheapo store shelves each Halloween. But what if those pictures weren’t fake? What stories would those characters tell?
For one, their beautiful large house, all tucked away from society on a majestic cliffside, bit the dust in the war, and that was that. Or was it? Peregrine herself, it turns out, has several special powers, one of which is to turn back time. And so, each night, she and her small band of wards gather in the front yard as the enemy bombers pass overhead. Seconds before the bomb that destroyed the house destroys the house, she supernaturally takes them all back to the beginning of that same day. Over and over again, they live out the events, remembering but never aging. This has been the daily routine since 1943.
Never mind the mumbo jumbo about area-specific time loops that grandpa has so meticulously solved to pass on to his grandson, allowing him to meet up with Peregrine and company. The screenplay by Jane Goldman seems awfully convinced of its need to explain. But, on the flip side, this has to be a case of “just go with it” - at least upon first viewing. They talk about it as though it matters (to them it must) and it's real (to them it is), but Burton obviously isn't all that interested. So why should we be? There's plenty else in the whole of this detailed, life-worn confluence of time(s) and place(s) to look at and appreciate above and beyond (heaven forbid) plot mechanics.
The point is (spoiler free, of course) that Jake makes it to Abe’s fantastically frightening world, something he grew up hearing about and being told of as true, but eventually had to dismiss as tall tale nonsense. Once there, he can embrace his true peculiarity, and help the denizens of the time-locked Home to perhaps move on. And isn’t that the ideal at the heart of most every honest Tim Burton film?
But never mind the director and direction of this most atmospheric and visually pleasing film of its type; let’s cut away to the most-asked central question: Have you read the book?
I for one have not. In fact, previous to seeing the movie, I didn’t even know that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the first novel by author Ransom Riggs first published in 2011 and a best seller, existed. I hear it’s very good. The film they made out of it isn’t half bad, either. Having now had the orange, maybe one day I’ll also try its corresponding apple. If that’s a deal breaker in terms of this review, so be it. Hearing other critics discuss this question, I know for a fact that there will be several other reviews playing out as book/movie comparisons. I’ll just quickly advocate that the two mediums are what they what they are, one never rightly needing to be a pre-requisite for the other.
As natural a fit as the source material seems to be, the resulting film cannot be called an unqualified slam dunk for Burton. (With apologies for a sports term in describing one of his films.) The lethargic quality of most of it too easily shifts from focused dwelling to listlessness-inducing prattle. Only in the end chase scenes does his mischievousness streak kick in, and good fun is had. It remains solid middle-of-the-road Tim Burton output, positively his most noteworthy offering since 2003's Big Fish.
It's Eva Green though, who elevates it. Trading sexiness for enigma, and letting the crows feet ever so slightly take landing near her eyes, Green is poised for a lifelong career, gloriously transcending her youthful allure. Exuding knowing, world-weary glances and just the pauses, she is simply great in the title part, commanding and unforgettable. Without her in the part, Miss Peregrine's would unquestionably be a different, lesser film.
As Burton's elder phase sets in, it should be noted that Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children isn't so much stagnant as it is sometimes still. And stillness isn't a bad thing. Although in this day and age, for a film of its scope and stature, it is, shall we say, peculiar.