It is tough to be a Tim Burton fan these days. To admit that the things that made Burton’s movies so singular – the quirky characters, the unique visuals, the dark humour, the deft use of camp, the underlying melancholy – seem to be the very things that handicap him now. For while he’s perfected the art of creating that Burton “feel”, he seems to have misplaced the Burton “soul”.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his adaptation of young adult (YA) novel Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. On paper, it has all the makings of a success. After all, not since 2007’s Sweeney Todd has a story seemed so ripe for the Burton treatment.
The original book by Ransom Riggs, filled with vintage black-and-white photographs of grim-looking people in period clothing, tells of young loner Jake (played here by Asa Butterfield), who stumbles upon a home for children with some decidedly odd abilities. Running the home is Miss Peregrine, who acts as mother, headmistress and protector to them.
Jake was raised on fantastical tales of Miss Peregine’s home by his grandfather (a perfectly-cast Terence Stamp), who has just died under mysterious circumstances. Needless to say, finding out that the home and its uncanny inhabitants exist – and seem to have existed since his grandfather was a teenager – is just the beginning of Jake’s adventure.
Burton takes this premise and dresses it up as only he can. And there are some delicious results.
I dare you, for instance, to find another YA adaptation that gleefully depicts monsters plucking their young victims’ eyeballs out to feast on like delicacies. Or that absolutely bonkers climactic battle that pays homage to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work.
And then there’s Eva Green as the titular Miss Peregrine, working with Burton for the second time after Dark Shadows. Green is totally arresting, embodying the best elements of various Burton women, but with a knowing swagger that is all her own.
Yet, there is a sense of missed opportunity. While excelling at creating appropriately gothic set pieces for the story, Burton seems to have paid scant attention to the plot’s deeper possibilities.
Children who haven’t grown up for decades, the squeamishness of Jake developing feelings for his grandfather’s old flame, the heaviness of grief – one would think these mesh perfectly with Burton’s storytelling sensibilities. Yet, the filmmaker seems content to tell this tale by rote, letting the plot simply move along instead of layering it with something more.
Which mostly works. The screenplay, by Jane Goldman (who also wrote X-Men: First Class; see some similarities there?), is peppered with moments of sly humour, and Samuel L. Jackson hams it up entertainingly enough as bad guy Barron (Johnny Depp must have been otherwise occupied). There is also plenty of visual excitement to carry the film through, including the amazing costumes by Colleen Atwood, though things start feeling fairly predictable as the movie nears its end.
The younger cast is serviceable, though not very memorable. Even Butterfield, who excelled in Hugo and Ender’s Game, is given little to work with here; his scenes with love interest Emma (Ella Purnell) are particularly flat.
While it seems churlish to constantly compare Miss Peregrine to its director’s previous works, it can hardly be helped when Burton himself can’t stop making the allusions: fans of his work will recognise visual elements from many of his old favourites.
Yet, the movie itself does not come close. Miss Peregrine has neither the tragedy of Edward Scissorhands nor the subversive humour of Sleepy Hollow, or even the heart of Frankenweenie. It feels, instead, more akin to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland (incidentally, also book adaptations): all Burton-esque idiosyncrasies without much substance.
In Miss Peregrine, by the time a multicoloured carousel unicorn shoots out onto an invisible monster covered in confetti and cotton candy during the climax, one thing has become abundantly clear. Burton isn’t interested in using his style to tell someone else’s story; instead, his style is the story.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell