Decades in the avant-garde cinema placebo business have rotted Tim Burton’s teeth with candy and softened his fangs. Where his films’ runtimes were once pecked down by vultures eating away any festering fat or excess, the estate Burton now commands comes with an electric dome that keeps the birds at bay and lets his ego wax outwards well past its sell-by dates. Like all of his recent efforts, Miss Peregrine is sporting a muffin top, the luxury afforded by engorged budgets comforting Burton in his decision to spare the screenplay none of its expository calories. None of his films since Sleepy Hollow have sported enough genuine achtung to occupy that oh-so peculiar spot between a carousel and an asylum that his earliest films haunted. In this capacity, the name on the tin of his newest film – “peculiar” – is only rubbing salt on his failure to genuinely be peculiar for the past twenty years or so.
Still, even if Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is unlikely to serve as the gateway drug for future Burton masterpieces once again, this new film boasts an appealingly haphazard, thrown-together-in-the-garage-rather-than-the-board-room irreverence that at least recalls the phantom specter of Burton’s old junkyard dogs. For someone who spent a good fifteen years Frankensteining films out of cinema history and then a second, more egotistical run Frankensteining new pictures out of his old films, Miss Peregrine’s at least remembers the missionary zeal he used to etch into his from-the-reptile-brain productions way back when. Like all of his films since Ed Wood, it’s ultimately more lamb for the blockbuster slaughter, an interloper on weirdness more than a genuine convert, and a piece to consume more than savor. But it is the only live-action film in Burton’s catalogue stapled together since the turn of the new millennium to at least dance with the Ghost of Burton’s past.
Certainly, he isn’t receiving a great deal of aid from Jane Goldman’s screenplay (adapting from Ransom Riggs’ book) which is – as is seemingly regulatory for every adaptation of a children’s book these days – entirely too smitten with the inner-workings of its own world. Rather than playing wondrously and suggestively with the story (a la Spielberg’s still-got-the-magic-in-him The BFG), fluttering information out in wisps and insinuations, the screenplay retreats into the mire of steely expository monologues that clarify (and staple down to earth) what ought to be left floating around in the mind.
From what I can gather, Jake (Asa Butterfield) is a newly-cognizant teenage Peculiar – a race of near-humans with special gifts that necessitate living outside of society’s bounds. Specifically, this necessitates living in a time bubble conjured by Ymbrynes, a specific caliber of Peculiars who create these closeted spaces for the Peculiars to live out their days as second-hand families. For Jake, this means living with the steely Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her cabal of youthful, plucky Peculiars, such as obvious second-hero Emma (Ella Purnell) who controls air, in a bubble perpetually ensnared in September of 1943. And, naturally, for reasons that are irrelevant and wholly arbitrary, a reel brigade of renegade Peculiars has their eyes, and their teeth more importantly, set on hunting Peculiars, which is where a cheerily mangled Barron (Samuel Jackson) enters the fray.
It’s rather more a situation than a story proper, but then the film at its most granular is the film at its most inhibited and tied down by the rationalist impulse to explain itself. There is, bluntly, far too much story bric-a-brac here, far too much specificity sabotaging the playful vagueness of fantasy at its most inspired. Burton’s best films could have made great cat burglars, all spindly and eerie and defined by an odd concoction of wry, effete showmanship and unremarked-upon minimalism. But he long ago gave up any hope of purposeful, judicious craft and sold his soul to the corporate masters, foreclosing on the opportunity of a truly diligent Burton film ever again. A great film achieves a life in the mind beyond the screen, but every time your mind might dare drift off in blissful ecstasy, Miss Peregrine’s drops another exposition-dump on you. In scratching the itch to explain itself, the film only closes off its pathways for adventure, pacifying any of the strange vagaries of ambiguity and ambivalence. It force-feeds us everything we could possibly want, precluding you from ever wanting more.
Still, with expectations safely managed, Miss Peregrine’s recaptures a little of the sly flirtatiousness Burton used to dole out in spades in his early works of coquettish, sexually-repressed inner fire. It doesn’t even tempt the empathetic homoerotic twinge of his early work (an evolution on his hero James Whale), but there’s a slippery twitch or two of camp here that is freeing because it implies rather than driving itself into the ground. Elsewhere, Miss Peregrine’s is a kaleidoscope of Otherness that threatens fetishizing difference but ultimately revels too much in the sheer exultancy of differentiation and uniqueness – formally tracing the momentary energies of these children’s lives through unmoored, tracking camera movements – to feel too pandering. Bruno Delbonnel’s debonair cinematography appropriates middle-century Americana and British eruditeness without getting all PT Barnum about its artisanal weirdness. Nor does Gavin Bocquet’s production design veer into the ludicrously over-baked, shrill hollowness of Burton’s recent nadir Alice in Wonderland. (Burton regular Colleen Atwood is near her career best with costumes that keep an eye on the particulars without feeling stuffy or fussy about it as well).
Naturally, the film’s look distracts from the frailty of the story rather than announcing itself as a statement on its own, but even if it is a fantasia at best, the horror-inflected imagery moors the film to a sense of consequence lacking in many of the filmmaker’s recent efforts. There are brushes with alienation and mortality in this film speckled with presentiments of loneliness. Burton actually fiddles with the quotidian malaise of day to day life in a mostly unchanging domestic abode that relies on wonder and danger if only to keep it from seeming like a self-imposed prison, amiably recasting the spectacle as escape from the doldrums of experience. This director retreated into the sanctuary of corporate synergy long go, and he hardly returns to the monstrous incongruities of his best work – always more unresolved and jagged than the budget here might allow – but there’s a morbid curiosity here that emanates a little dark energy, or at least more than Burton has since the turn of the century. It’s browsing through the halls of midnight madness without ever fully foaming at the mouth with hysteria, but even the finale – which suffers from a level of CG halitosis that ought to be criminally investigated, or at least regulated by the FDA – benefits from a level of purposeful camera mischief that is inspired at best, not distracting at worst.
It’s no surprise that good luck charm Eva Green comes in handy as well as the film’s center of gravity, reclaiming her haughtiness that has graced nearly every role in her second-act career reinvention as a B-movie camp queen. But she also stamps down on her eccentric tendencies until flamboyant Grand Dame flourishes become nervous, jittery ticks, radiating a British frigidity about which Burton is admirably ambivalent. Her role is something like a pseudo-authoritarian mother, a knife coiled in a blanket, a wise owl and a circling vulture, and she’s quietly wonderful in the role as far as it goes.
No doubt, Miss Peregrine’s is compromised to a point. It circles around and around but never feels rambunctious. The speed never ignites the spark of narrative disarray and genuine anarchy. This necromancer of a director once summoned cackling life out of the deathly cemetery. Now, the putrescent fantasia of his ever-lively mise-en-scene paradoxically runs headfirst into the grave of cinematic boredom. Worse, while the ghosts of cinema past once left scratch marks and ragged, protruding bones sticking out of the deathly hallows of Burton’s cinematic cadavers, now he mostly packages his films piecemeal out of laminated, pristine CG parts too clean to ever inflict real damage or cause real trouble. The reaper of “meaning” and “moral” also kills the antic irreverence of the film’s Looney Tunes glee. Burton fails to realize that in meaning nothing – in flouting the rationalist compulsion to conform to cause-effect logic – a filmmaker can be much more provocative than in conforming to it.
So this film is a consolation prize in lieu of a legitimately good motion picture, a stocking stuffer if you will. But, that all said, I for one was well past expecting anything at all from Burton anymore. On its own terms, Burton’s mise-en-scene ain’t half bad, somewhere in the vicinity of FW Murnau decked out in Christmas kitsch or Eric Carle gone horribly awry. The finale, a carousel of B-picture’s finest forgotten fiends, unleashes some of that old-time trash-can crash-bang rock ‘n’ roll Burton uses to muster when his eyes were at their wildest and his hands at their most dexterous (and most willing to shoplift films from the past). Don’t expect termite art or a work animated by the excitement of eating its own boundaries. (At this point, Burton is content primarily to entomb himself in his boundaries as an alternate world of style as a lacquer protecting him from actually addressing life’s complications). But Miss Peregrine’s Home catches Burton just sleep-deprived enough to relax from his typical candy-cocaine addiction. At the least, it feels like a film rather than, like his Alice in Wonderland, an epilepsy or a rollercoaster hostage situation.