The rap on Tim Burton is that he hasn’t made a truly great film in years. Ever since the turn of the millennium, he’s “sold out”, churning out impersonal blockbusters that may jack his style, but do so with the ruthless soullessness of corporate product. His instantly recognizable style — the Goth-y cutesiness, that special blend of the macabre and the whimsical, like a particularly morbid child that never really grew up — was there, but it felt hollow, empty, curdled into schtick. From the release of his first film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 through to at least Sleepy Hollow in 1999, Burton had a most enviable run, churning out classics like Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, the first two Batman movies and more. It made him a rarity: the A-list icon director, as famous a celebrity as Tarantino or Spielberg, but in the aughts he began to drift away from the pale-skinned innocence of his earlier work. In films like the clunky remake of Planet of the Apes, or the candy-colored garishness of his twin disasters Alice In Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he came across a Tim Burton impersonator going through the motions of making a “Tim Burton” film.
It’s not that Burton became a bad director, per se; just a bored one. It would be a lie to say he hasn’t made a single good film since 2000, because he has made some good films: the emotionally resonant storybook carnival phantasmagoria of Big Fish, his cheekily horrific Broadway splatter musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. More often than not, however, he’s delivered stuff Dark Shadows. So when it was announced he was making a film version of Ransom Rigg’s novel Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, it was hard to get excited: here was a film that would play to his gifts for visually inventive imagery, but, also his weaknesses — for busyness, for pre-fab quirk.
So it’s nice to report that Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is NOT the glittery empty shell one fears it to be. The movie is essentially Harry Potter meets the X-Men, and if that makes the movie sound like a conventional high-concept YA fantasy — which, admittedly, it is — it’s a least a conventional high-concept YA fantasy made with real magic and feeling. Even when the story veers into clockwork mechanicality, Burton directs with the buoyant low-key energy of his best work. There are images here that tickle the eyeballs, like a fight between an armada of roving skeletons and a gaggle of tentacular monsters than can only be described as Burton’s version of the Creepypasta-era viral legend Slenderman, that play like Ray Harryhausen-gone-digital techno-stop motion, but the thing is that Burton no longer wants to assault you with them.
The movie stars the great young actor Asa Butterfield, in a performance of gawky, wide-eyed feeling, as Jake, a tremblingly soulful and smart young man who has a hard time adjusting when his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp, showing a deep-hearted kindness under his menacing hardness) dies. Jake thinks he saw, something, there that night, and as a way of finding closure, he travels with his distracted, bird-watching father to the tiny Welsh town where his granddad grew up — which is also the same town that he spun stories about growing up in a boarding house full of children with…peculiar abilities. Of course, no one believes grandpa, but when Jake goes exploring, he meets Emma (Ella Purnell), a doll-eyed blond beauty with lead shoes that keep her from floating into the clouds, who brings Jake back to meet Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and the rest of the kids — there’s an invisible boy, a curly-haired little angel with a toothy, ravenous mouth in the back of her head, a girl with a literally hot touch and her boyfriend who can implant little hearts into anything and turn it into a puppet for his amusement.
Burton teases out the kid’s mutations with charming wonderment. When Emma unbuckles her shoes, and she goes floating up, like some delicate humanoid balloon, it’s a scene of sincere beauty, and the movie gets off on images like that. This is the first time, in a long time, that you can tell that Burton is in love with the romanticism of the imagery — the 1940s production design, the joy the kids have in their peculiarities, the astonishing awe of it all. The story itself is pure rulebook claptrap — there are evil dark-mirror peculiars, who are have some sort of convoluted plot to gain immortality and are led by Samuel L. Jackson in a fuzzy white shock-wig that makes him look like a vampire version of Henry from Eraserhead, and those giant, gangly Slender-beasties, who rampage through homes and streets in action scenes that are (except for one) fairly generic, and there is a love story, a touching if reticent one, between Emma and Jake. None of this is surprising, and it still feels weird to see Burton applying his magical touch to the kind of fantasy adventure we’ve been seeing done, over and over again, for the last decade or so.
But it’s churlish to complain when its done this well. What is surprising is the deftness of touch that Burton brings to the material. And the acting too: there are a couple too many good actors, like Chris O’Dowd and Judi Dench, stuck in throwaway roles, but this is the rare modern teen fantasy touched with genuine heart. Butterfield is terrific as a quiet nerd with an inner core of bravery, and Purnell is a real find; meanwhile, there’s Green, the raven-haired Queen of slyly knowing imperial grandeur, transforming her dagger eyes and razorblade smile into a winking performance of officious warmth. But the real surprise is the delight in seeing a Burton movie that feels like, for the first time in a while, its own lead shoes have been removed.