It's not very hard to imagine a different version of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - only a slightly different version, even - that's a wonderfully imaginative and full of no end of cinematic marvels. For a film that could be described, in fact very nearly demands to be described as "Harry Potter meets the X-Men", it doesn't really rest on the laurels of copying those inspirations, but tries fairly hard to do its own thing. This eighteenth feature directed by Tim Burton* isn't really typical of his style, such that I doubt very much that anybody would be able to look at any given frame of the film and correctly determine who was responsible for it (the presence of a waifish blonde is the closest real tell for the first 90% of the running time).

But it is at least somewhat typical of the mentality he used to bring to all his films: a twee family story with a vein of cold-blooded horror running right through the heart of it. In its best moments along those lines, MPHFPC threatens to be one of the best children's horror movies in an awfully long time, pushing right up to (and in a scene most of the way towards the end, going well past) the edge of what you ought to be able to get away with in terms of all-ages spooky, morbid imagery. There are foggy woods with giant things behind the trees; there are monsters with splendidly horrible toothy mouths, there are allegedly sympathetic characters who are dressed as faceless clowns all in white, there are dolls grotesquely animated like perversions from out of ล vankmajer. The target audience, clearly enough, seems to be those horribly morbid little children who hear tell of invisible monsters that eat your eyes and beam with pure delight; perfect little Burton Juniors, of whom I was once one, and if MPHFPC had come out when I was 10, it would have been my favorite movie of all time.

Even all grown up, I'll confess myself an easy mark for this kind of well-mounted juvenile spookiness, and whenever that's what the film has going on, I'm all for it. Burton's good at it, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (for whom I am also an easy mark) is supremely good at filming it, and the result is a sensory pleasure, even though the horror elements are really quite a small part of the film as a whole. But even then, there's still quite a bit of joyful creativity at play in the depiction of a vaguely threatening, insular world, where prim, proper English children have mutant powers that generally trend towards the uncanny rather than the superheroic. And in his depiction of a young woman, the aforementioned blonde waif Emma (Ella Purnell), Burton seems to be genuinely excited by the power of the cinema to depict fantasy for the first time all century.

Pity that it has to have a story to come along and fuck it all up. Not that it had to be that way. Stories are fine things. This story, in fact, is a fine thing. It's the damned exposition that's the problem. So here's where we're at: in Florida, adolescent Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is something of a gangly loner, whose only real connection to people has been his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp), who for years told him wonderful stories about his time in a small children's home on an obscure Welsh island, where all the other children had miraculous powers. As Jake has gotten older, he's drifted from Abe, and now there's no going back: the old man has died violently, of what was definitely not a dog attack, like the police think, though Jake can't prove that. What he can do, though is strong arm his dad (Chris O'Dowd) into taking him to Wales for a "therapeutic trip", agreed to by his psychiatrist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney); it will actually serve to let him attempt to fulfill his grandfather's cryptic final request, something to do with the old children's home.

And from there- well, I don't know, is the thing. We learn, alongside Jake, that there is a side-race of human "Peculiars", who have powers that make it best for them to live outside of the mainstream of society; they do this in time-suspension pockets run by Ymbrynes, certain female Peculiars who can control time and transform into birds. One such pocket, perpetually re-running 3 September, 1943, is home to Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her cluster of Peculiar children, comfortably hiding away in eternal, ageless boredom, while the rogue Peculiar Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to find and murder them, as well as every other time loop in the world.

That sounds... not unreasonable? It's convoluted though, and made more convoluted by Jane Goldman's adaptation of Ransom Riggs's novel, which is unduly fascinated by the rules governing this world, without ever stopping to make sure those rules make a damn bit of sense. I confess that I couldn't catch Miss Peregrine &c in an actual plot hole, but it sure as hell doesn't feel like everything hangs together, if only because some of the answers don't show up until the last 15 minutes or so of a laughably distended 127 minutes. Even conceding that world generally makes sense, it's certainly not worth the enormous volume of dialogue devoted to building that world, something which takes most of the film's plot and in fact manages to mostly supersede such incidentals as conflict or character growth. I suppose that Jake is different when the movie ends than when it begins, but he barely has any more personality than being our gawking eyes and ears to take in the magical world in front of us, so his evolution doesn't really register; it's like trying to make out off-white stripes against a white background.

It is, frankly, a bit of a slog, livened though it is by some nifty production design by Gavin Bocquet, costumes by Burton favorite Colleen Atwood, and thoroughly beautiful, slightly Impressionistic visual effects in the dappled, Edenic world of September, 1943. The characters who aren't Jake add some life to it, especially Finlay MacMillan as the surly, jealous Enoch, as well as Purnell, but none of them take much precedence as more than anthropomorphic set pieces. Outside of its generally effective atmosphere of foreboding underneath the beautiful exteriors, the film only has two outright strengths (three if we count Judi Dench's late, spurious, wholly endearing extended cameo). To nobody's surprise who's been paying attention, especially those who saw her film-salvaging turn in Burton's Dark Shadows, one of these is Green, who despite being the top-billed title character isn't remotely the main character in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, but who dominates it anyway. Her performance is smaller and more tightly-coiled than her hammy villain in Dark Shadows; there's a kindness to her that I don't believe we've seen out of her before, and coupled with the haughtiness that she carries into all things, the result is one her most interesting performances. Miss Peregrine is a loving but distant mother; a sweet woman with flinty warrior coldness behind her eyes (the moment where this is "revealed" is a bit redundant).

The other thing is the climax, which is hard to parse in a lot of ways - the film's juggling of timeframes goes into overdrive and arrives in 2016 by means of a mechanic that it only supposes it's clearly depicted - but has inordinate visual playfulness, between its fun use of invisible giant monsters and, better yet, an army of skeletons copied directly from the Ray Harryhausen monsters in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts. A stop-motion animator at heart, it's plain that Burton adores that sequence, and having a chance to pay homage to it has revivified him considerably; it is an ebullient, giddy, and altogether fun sequence, the best thing in any Burton film since Sleepy Hollow way back in 1999. It takes a lot of an attractive but pokey, sometimes confounding movie to get to that point, and I wouldn't swear that it's worth it. But as silly-minded action setpieces go, it's a good 'un, and it comes perilously close to justifying the whole uneven feature.




*Which means, incidentally, that we've finally passed the tipping point: now more than half of Burton's features have been made during his later, worse period that started 15 years and 10 movies ago with Planet of the Apes.