‘Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children’
Director:
Tim Burton
Stars: Asa Butterfield, Eva Green
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

In “Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children,” not only does Tim Burton save the YA genre, but the YA genre saves Tim Burton. Who knew they’d make a power couple? Actually, it makes a kind of sense. YA movies have been forever dour and emo — a drag even when they sport Elizabeth Banks looking like a rainbow had farted on her face. They could use a sense of humor, a yen for the ghoulish — perhaps Eva Green vamping while smoking a giant pipe, or beasties feasting on a bowl of freshly plucked eyeballs.

What Burton gets out of the deal is harder to pinpoint. He’s never been much of a storyteller, and he’s not about to grow into one as he approaches 60. He has little interest in the genre’s yen for impenetrable mythology and saucer-eyed romance. But though it has the routine innocents happening upon secret societies and fending off the usual adversaries with catchy names, Ransom Riggs’ mordant book series seems like it was written with the naked intention of one day becoming a Tim Burton movie, and maybe even one of the good ones. It’s like Riggs wanted to save Tim Burton by gifting him with Tim Burton fan-fiction.

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To wit: Instead of brooding vampires and lycans or some dystopian jazz, “Miss Peregrine” offers a cabal of teens and small kids with cool superpowers. One can fly. Another is invisible. Two wee ones dressed in what look like potato sacks have an ability held off for a very good late-in punch line. The quietest one can project dreams from his eyes like a movie projector. (Note to academics: There’s a grad school paper here about the Lacanian theory of film viewing.) Their headmistress is played by Burton’s brilliant current muse, Eva Green, who rocks her now expected silent movie diva poses and high camp line readings. The outside world has no idea they exist, and in fact they live in a literal bubble, living the same day, from 1943, forever, and never aging. (It’s “Peter Pan” meets “Groundhog Day,” or maybe “Celine and Julie Go Boating.”)

You almost wish it was a hang-out movie, that the story didn’t revolve around a token YA nice guy (Asa Butterfield) happening upon their funky corner of the world. (Even Burton’s Batman was an S&M enthusiast, though at least this guy falls in love with his grandfather's still-young girlfriend.) But when it comes to the token villains, it does it in style. They’re called “The Hollows,” and they’re a band of half-human monsters led by Samuel L. Jackson, who want nothing more than to steal a bunch of kids’ eyeballs and then eat them. It’s a long story — a long story Burton doesn’t entirely care about. Burton isn’t details; he only cares if those details let him fly his freak flag. And Riggs’ books give him enough freakiness to keep him awake and alert, or simply to slip Ray Harryhausen’s battling skeletons and a straight-up nod to the Quay brothers’ thing for decaying baby dolls into the world’s increasingly antiseptic multiplexes. (Worth noting: Burton’s may be a household name, but at least half of his shtick is lovingly derivative. He’s closer to a Tarantino mix-tape artist for the macabre than on original visionary.)

Burton has made good or even noble films since 1996’s “Mars Attacks!”, but “Peregrine” is the first time in the interim he’s truly seemed to love being a director, and not just a tool branding his name on weak material as though it were livestock. Even what should be a routine bloated climax is stuffed silly with witty pair-offs between dueling superpowers. It’s like an “X-Men” battle, only fun. This isn’t great Tim Burton, and it only pales when compared to his heyday works. But maybe it shouldn’t be read as a comeback movie, or even as his attempt to recapture former glories (or, ye gods, as a YA movie). It might signal a welcome shift in his career: He’s entered that period when aging populist masters stop carrying about grosses or audience reactions and use their grandfathered-in clout to do whatever the hell they want.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge