Burton burnishes macabre vision

Few directors have built up as consistent a body of work as Tim Burton. In a career that spans nearly 30 years, he has created 16 features that celebrate the macabre,
with one or two exceptions. 

But that consistency doesn’t always extend to successful outcomes. The early ones were groundbreaking in their originality.

Few will forget the impact of Beetlejuice (1988) or Johnny Depp’s striking debut in Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton all but invented the modern comic-based superhero blockbusters with Batman (1989) and a sequel.

At his peak, Burton also brought new vitality to stop-motion animation as the producer of Corpse Bride (2005), directed with Mike Johnson, and The Nightmare before Christmas (1993). By then Burton was associated, for better or worse, with anything that is ghoulish or ghastly without being inaccessible.

In Ed Wood (1994), Burton delved into the career of a low-budget science fiction film-maker, lauded as the worst in Hollywood. Yet Wood’s legacy endures, notably in the new Kiwi production The Giant Papier Maché Boulder is Actually Really Heavy (see Clips for review). Other hits followed: Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Burton’s croppers include Mars Attacks! (1996), Dark Shadows (2012), a big-budget remake of the TV soap opera, and Big Eyes (2014), which failed to get a commercial release in New Zealand.

These generally revealed Burton’s weaknesses, such as lack of character and plot and over dependence on strangeness. At his best, his style is strongly visual, darkly comic and fixated on the morbidity.

Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (20th Century Fox) contains a full brace of monsters and misfits. Based on a part-photo journal, part-novel by Ransom Riggs and aimed at young adults, it tells the story of teenager Jake, (Asa Butterfield, of Hugo), who unravels a family mystery.

Guided by his grandfather’s photo collection, Jake tracks down the school for peculiar children, who have X-Men-like powers. They are under threat from invisible monsters, known as Hollows, and shelter in time “loops”.

Jacob’s special power is that only he can see the Hollows and effectively deal with their aim to achieve immortality. He is welcomed into the orphanage/school, run by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who has created a 24-hour time “loop” for their protection. This means she and her pupils must relieve the same day, every day. It is also the day when the school, set on a Welsh island, comes under enemy attack during World War II. (The island’s village was filmed in Portholland, Cornwall, and the castle-like school in Torenhof, Belgium.)

The mix of a mid-1940s period setting and futuristic monsters gives full vent to Burton’s bizarre imagination, which includes an amazing reconstruction of Blackpool’s gaudy entertainment pier and tower.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman earns her keep with a rerun of her X-Men: First Class credentials: the children exercising their extraordinary powers and a barnacled shipwreck that rises out of the ocean.

Rating: Mature audience (violence and scary scenes). 126 mins.

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Nevil Gibson

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