In a world that now seems like fantasy but which was once very real, Tim Burton was one of our most imaginative and uncompromising filmmakers–one who could wrest vivid, dreamy details into a cogent story. Burton still has his imagination, as his adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ young-adult novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children proves. The picture is laced with gorgeous, haunting touches: two young teens, feeling their way toward romance, drift to the bottom of the sea for an innocent rendezvous aboard a sunken ocean liner–its dining room, draped in mossy rust, is still populated by skeletons sitting primly at their fully set tables, waiting for a meal that will never arrive. Burton revels in his trademark gruesome wit too: a radiant little girl looks perfectly normal from the front–but at the back of her head lurks a second mouth, rimmed with menacing, pointy teeth.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—a mystical fantasy in which a pipe-smoking headmistress, played by the always alluring Eva Green, cares for a group of specially “gifted” children who survive eternally by reliving a single day in 1943–is in many ways the perfect repository for Burton’s own gloriously peculiar gifts. It’s far less garish than some of his recent monstrosities, like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. And he’s alive to the charms of his performers, including the gangly, winsome Asa Butterfield (best known for Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo) and the young English actor Ella Purnell, as a lighter-than-air miss kept earthbound only by her strappy lead shoes.
But what’s happened to Burton’s gift for storytelling? In the movie’s second half, it’s impossible to follow the story’s gnarled-vine logic. The picture’s elegance devolves into chaos, a mess of noisy, cluttered action sequences, as if Burton didn’t trust us to sit still through something quieter, moodier and more controlled. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children could have been a return to form for Burton, but he loses his sense of direction halfway through. If only he could find his way back to his wild bread-crumb trail, the one that guided him so ably for years.
This appears in the October 10, 2016 issue of TIME.
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