A problem with Tim Burton is that he is like a mamba. No-one knows where he will strike next — not even the studios that are happy to finance his enormous successes (Alice in Wonderland had worldwide revenues of over US$1bn) but less so when he delivers a resounding flop. A sub-problem is that (as a gifted child addicted to comics) his selection of genre can be muddled by what appear to be inner problems he should discuss with someone.
In this movie, the hero, Jake (Butterfield), has a frosty father – which has relevance to Miss (defiantly Miss, not Ms) Peregrine (a slinky Eva Green). Her "home" on a remote island can be taken as an allegory of the children moved to the countryside during German aerial bombardments in World War 2. And society locks up "peculiar" kids and refugees.
Miss Peregrine’s refuge has many quirks: it’s bombed in 1943 (in Wales, though the hero is American) but the children are saved by their mistress creating a "loop" through time whereby they awake each day to life and joy and never grow old. Miss P is also some kind of magician (she’s also a falcon) who helps protect her charges from the subterranean darkness that throws up truly monstrous eyeball-eaters with crab-claws for hands.
The interweaving of human forms and nightmarish forces is, frankly, confusing — and the plot is a surreal smear of conflicts, until the school sails away (in a ship raised from the ocean floor) into a world in which ever-more "loops" entice them to explore and rejoice.
There’s a train wreck of dramatis personae — Jake seeking to disentangle certain clues to life bequeathed him by his grandfather (Stamp); an embattled peregrine-style mage (Dench); Jake’s sweetheart Emma (Purnell) who is entirely weightless (in one lovely scene he tugs her along like a balloon); Olive (McCrostie) who sets things on fire by touch alone; a ferocious figure embodied by a grotesque Hitler figure (Jackson), and his double, a skanky shrink (Janney); Millard (an invisible boy played by an invisible boy); and one with bees in his tum.
What Burton’s computer-assisted transformations and Möbius-strip geometry adduce is far too flurried – like trying to hit an omelette with a tennis racquet.
I surmise the studios let Burton do as he wishes at any given moment. Now and again a blockbuster surges forth; or, as in Miss Peregrine, it recoups the investment by drawing in peculiar children who don’t play sport or class games and hide away reading Roald Dahl or Marvel.
The search for a family — and one that is safe in a terrible war — rests on at least one premise: that all those old photographs tell of a past to which imagination permits us to return. Those grey images on a print (and Jake sees his grandfather’s set) tell us that these were real people, who really lived and died.
Or did they really die? Burton’s vision (and one should not deny him one) allows viewers to fall into the cluttered but ultimately truly fantastic canvas of storytelling, wherever it takes them. Perhaps he is reaching for a new breakthrough in cinema — but simply isn’t there yet?
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Directed by Tim Burton; based on the 2011 Ransom Riggs young-adult novel
Lead roles: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Judi Dench, SamuelLJackson, and many others