Written By Matt Gilbert
Wow, does it feel good to like a Tim Burton movie again. After definitively way too many movies that could be considered at best guilty pleasures, and at worst unbecoming of a beloved billion-dollar filmmaker, Burton comes off the disappointment of Big Eyes with a new young adult fiction adaptation. It works less as a new franchise entering the competition, and more as a step back into the comfort zone for Hollywood’s favorite “special child.”
It couldn’t’ be more obvious that Burton is back in his element and enjoying his work again. This movie is beautiful. From the very beginning it’s easy to see his unique effort all over the picture. It’s a pretty long time before Asa Butterfield’s Jake stumbles into the titular home, or meets any anomalous young’uns, but Burton’s odd style can be found in the muted colors and careful geometry of the set. There’s a particularly dark scene at the very beginning that’s positively dripping with textbook Tim Burton atmosphere and themes that quickly ends. Once Jake steps through Wonderland (sorry, I mean the year 1943), the beige and gray of 2016 is replaced with colorful locations, as well as characters. Burton let’s his imagination run wild, but falling short of obnoxious in the world of peculiars.
The children themselves may all be troublingly white, but their personalities and peculiarities add their own sort of diversity to the film. There are enough children in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to make it feel more populated than it is, and every moment one runs on screen feels welcome and gives us another peek into the peculiar world. It’s unfortunate that so many of them feel underdeveloped, but it feels wrong to fault the movie for focusing on its three main characters. Burton has always been a master of balancing kooky and abnormal character with fitting dialogue scenes, and every moment Jake manages to steal with another peculiar feels like a gift.
The child with easily the most screen time is Ella Purnell as Emma, who controls air. She is immediately one of the most compelling and lovable parts of the movie. She is both stone hearted and independent, but also full of wonder and compassion. The other peculiarities include basic superpowers like fire, strength and time There are also more unorthodox, silly ones like a girl with a carnivorous mouth on the back of her head. Credit must be given for resisting the trap of giving every character a backstory, and a subplot that would stretch the movie too thin On the flip side, it makes the third act romances and developments feel rather unearned.
And then, there is Miss Peregrine. Sure, you might be able to tell exactly how Helena Bonham Carter was probably going to fit in the role before her and Burton’s unexpected divorce in 2014, but never underestimate Eva Green. She is an exceptionally talented actress and simply becomes Miss Peregrine from the second she opens the door. She is fun, stern and welcoming. Her screen presence is magnetic. It’s what makes Green so irresistible throughout her filmography. The role itself is somewhere between that of Mary Poppins and Professor McGonagall. Her duties lie in caring for the children, resetting the time loop that lets them live in the same day forever, and protecting them from evil peculiars and their horde of terrifying monsters.
Mr. Baron is the leader of these peculiars and “hollows.” He is played by an incredibly entertaining Samuel L. Jackson. He is the kind of Tim Burton villain who isn’t as creepy as those around him but delights in being a certifiable maniac. Jackson is clearly having an absolute ball on screen. The only complaint is that there isn’t more of him, although the movie gives us a pretty acceptable reason for it. However, both Mr. Baron and the hollows are what make the movie as violent and disturbing as it is. The film is rated PG-13, but Burton pushes that close to the limit. Peculiars and hollows are killed on screen in increasingly shocking and violent ways. The hollows themselves look like they’re ripped straight out of a nightmare. The scene in which Miss Peregrine explains who these evil peculiars are brought back some very specific Neon Demon memories. The magic and wonder of the premise will no doubt attract plenty of parents and kids looking for a fantastical children’s adventure, but the movie is much more adult and gruesome than it lets on. It may not have the monochromatic palette of Sweeney Todd or Sleepy Hollow, but this may be Burton’s darkest film yet.
In case it isn’t obvious yet, the glaring thought that wouldn’t’ go away is how similar the story is to so many other successful stories and films. It’s obvious that the movie is based on a young adult fiction novel, as I had constant déjà vu to Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series. At times, I was even reminded of The Spiderwick Chronicles, even though I haven’t seen that movie in eight years. There’s nothing wrong with Butterfield’s performance, but audiences will surely have grown tired of the “‘I’m just a normal kid!’ ‘No, you’re not,'” shtick.
The redundant joke I heard every time I mentioned wanting to see this movie was calling it “Tim Burton’s X-Men.” It’s an apt comparison. The house and peculiarities feel very reminiscent of the Marvel franchise, which is what makes it so problematic when it takes the shaky third act to realize that each of the youngsters’ powers can be used as a weapon to defend themselves.
Miss Peregrine is not as classic as Edward Scissorhands, but it’s Burton’s best since Big Fish. While the premise feels too familiar at times, the new and unique elements from Ransom Riggs’ book keep the story feeling fresh and the adventure thrilling. Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson are what make the movie so delightful. The entire cast is excellent. It’s so gratifying to see Tim Burton put his name front and center on a project that feels worthy of it. It seems as though Burton has finally struck a balance between the over saturated nightmare that is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the uncharacteristic blandness of Big Eyes, crafting a story that feels like a recognizably Tim Burton film through its entire duration. Much like Jake, it seems Burton has, again, found where he truly belongs.