I’ll admit up front that I’m a little more positive on Tim Burton’s post-Sleepy Hollow career than most, finding at least one enjoyable film from the director’s late-career releases (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Big Eyes, Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie) for every insufferable, uninspired one (Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, Planet of the Apes). Burton was on an incredible hot streak in his 80s & 90s run, delivering one incredible work after another, so there’s a lot of pressure on his 00s & 2010s output that makes it suffer under scrutiny. However, divorced from the context of his earlier work, this second phase of his career is at least at a 50/50 average for me, which isn’t so bad considering the careers of other big budget Hollywood directors on his name recognition level. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny. The expectations resonating from Burton’s early work simply have way too much impact on the reception of his more current releases.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children & its YA source material are, essentially, goth X-Men for kids. Instead of mutant abilities, the kids have “peculiarities,” also contained in their genes, which more or less give them . . . mutant abilities. I guess the main difference there is that their peculiarities all have a sort of horrific sideshow quality to them: reanimating corpses, hidden jaws packed with sharp teeth, bodies full of bees, etc. It’s easy to see how Burton could want to merely luxuriate in this mansion full of little weirdos instead of chasing a plot, but Peculiar Children actually has a lot going on in its story structure. Cyclical time travel, intergenerational romance, mental disorder, alternative Holocaust narratives, and secret societies of shapeshifting demons who want to eat peculiar children’s eyeballs all swirl together to create one overwhelming kids-against-the-world conflict that admittedly trades in emotional resonance for large, complex ideas & haunted house imagery. Like with last year’s Crimson Peak, however, I was more than okay with swapping out emotional deft for visual craft here, especially since the visuals were so distinctly . . . peculiar. Samuel L. Jackson’s villain looks like a hybrid version of Don King & Nosferatu. A pair of masked twins recall antique photographs of 1900s Halloween costumes. A Harryhausen skeleton army wreaks havoc on a dayglow carnival funhouse. Stop motion monsters cobbled together out of babydoll parts & preserved animal corpses engage in a tabletop knife fight. A coven of dapper adults & long-limbed reptilian monsters devour piles upon piles of children’s eyeballs. Tim Burton may not be interested in self-reinvention with the imagery he delivers in Peculiar Children; he still delights in clashing a clean cut, sunlit suburbia with haunted house goth monstrosities. However, this film proves he’s still got the goods in terms of the strength & potency of the imagery he can deliver and any other shortcomings there might be in Peculiar Children comfortably rest on those laurels.
The more the scope of Tim Burton’s career becomes clear to me the more apparent it is that he’s almost exclusively a children’s filmmaker. Titles like Ed Wood & Sleepy Hollow are the outliers. Peculiar Children fits right in with Burton’s typical, imaginative creepshow for children aesthetic and I could very easily see a child growing up loving this movie the way I grew up loving Beetlejuice or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Kids have an easy time mentally luxuriating in fantasy spaces in a way adults don’t. Returning to Beetlejuice as an adult, the pace feels a lot more rapid than it did to me in the 90s and the movie flies by in a whir, whereas in my childhood it felt like an eternity. Peculiar Children will likely have the same effect on younger viewers. It delivers enough striking imagery & memorable set design that kids could mentally return to & stretch out its individual scenes in a way its two hour runtime couldn’t afford. A better, more deliberately paced version of this story might have stretched out over a franchise or a television series, but limiting it to a single film was a smart choice, one that will have implications on how children interact with it both onscreen & in their imaginations in the years to come. Even in its limited time span and overstuffed plot, Burton still finds the time to work in the doomed wartime narrative of The Devil’s Backbone and the places-as-ghosts concepts of a Toni Morrison novel, all while somehow maintaining the film’s firm footing as children’s media. If any other director had delivered Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it’s likely it’d be held in a much higher regard as an ambitious work of high-concept time travel sci-fi horror for children. However, only Burton could balance all of that overreaching narrative with such specific, effective imagery & maintain its for-kids tone. This film stands as yet another reminder that its director may not be delivering at 100% at this point in his career, but he’s still capable of making some truly great films in-between the duds.