Tim Burton returns with another premise that looks perfect for a good, old-fashioned Tim Burton-ing, but from which Tim Burton? Visionary Tim or Derivative Blockbuster Tim? Darren finds out.
Suspension of disbelief is critical in any kind of storytelling. We don’t have to believe a man can fly, Kurt Russell can take on a Chinese Deity and win or that Jonah Hill is likeable, we just have to not believe.
So much relies on this state of mind and no more so than fantasy movies. Films like Lord of the Rings do it the hard way, creating an entirely new world and lore so that everything feels authentic. Other movies, like Harry Potter, cheat a little. They start in the ordinary world and slowly draw you into the more fantastical side of things. All movies do this to an extent, but in fantasy this drawing into the other world is so reliant on you believing that the entire work can sink or swim on that alone.
Jacob is an ordinary boy working at his family’s local business. When he has to visit his beloved grandfather, who is stricken with dementia, he discovers his grandfather has been murdered by a man who isn’t there. Following his grandfather’s dying words and the advice of his therapist, Jacob and his father go to Wales where his grandfather stayed during the war. There he discovers all his favourite stories were true and that it’s up to him to figure out how to protect everyone.
Time for a small confession: I have actually read the book and I found it surprisingly lacklustre. The pictures and the integration of historical “freaks” into the story were delightful and some of the moments were wonderful but for the most part it is a pretty standard fantasy story. Boy feels out of place, is mocked, finds out he is more special than everyone ever knew and that it’s up to him to save everyone. It’s a very standard male power fantasy of the outcast.
For the most part, the movie follows the novel pretty well, and fans of the book will recognise most of the scenes and characters. There are a few changes: the main love interest’s powers are changed from fire to being able to control wind seemingly only because it would allow for the craziness that they wanted for the ending. And the ending, well, we’ll get to that.
For the people who haven’t read the book, you might as well have. Nothing about this is unique or out of the ordinary. Asa Butterfield, who plays Jacob, works about as well as you can expect. His lack of character must be frustrating for the actor, not allowing any room for real interpretation; it reminded me a lot of Keanu Reeves, in the sense that he woodenly accepts his role as audience surrogate, allowing you to project yourself effortlessly on to him.
The other actors are just as forgettable; Chris O’Dowd doing a surprisingly ok American accent still can’t help blending into the background despite having some interesting lines of dialogue about his own father that eventually go nowhere. Terrence Stamp, for me, is the only one who truly works in this. His charming cadence and solid performance made him the one who continually engaged me, even if it was just because of his charisma and not character.
And I hate to say it but you can really see the lack of Helena Bonham-Carter in this. Eva Green does well, but it comes off a little bit sinister at times and not in the manner we have become accustomed to in Burton movies. With the exception of one touching scene her performance is good but off-kilter, not striking the right balance between kooky, crazy and likeable.
And without Bonham-Carter, it seems there is no Burton in this movie either. While aspects we have come to expect from him are there, such as the difference in colour and tone from the real world and the fantasy world (a la Corpse Bride) there isn’t much to point to that really distinguishes this as a Burton movie. None of his signature style is here, nor the subtle blending of the dark and ethereal with the innocent and naive, and that’s the biggest shame in this movie. Burton doesn’t seem to commit, having flashes of what makes him an original director but having it buried under “blockbuster” tropes and styling.
For example, take the love story between Jacob and Emma. Bland is one word, artificial is another. It feels utterly forced, right from the beginning, and while there are hints of a connection, it all feels very fake and insincere. Being just another trope we have to go through because that is what we have to expect with a film of this type.
Despite all this, I’d almost say watch it just because of the ending.
Now, hear me out. The ending is pretty bad. It makes no sense in terms of the story, wasn’t in the original books nor does it commit as fully as I would have liked it to do. Imagine if you will, if at the end of an X-Men movie instead of all these mutants with incredible powers using those abilities to fight the big bad, they instead just use them to inconvenience them. Like Iceman just wetting the floor beneath Magneto’s feet or Wolverine only scratching them.
But it is fun somehow, a little bit of unruly chaos with a nice, but muted, Jason and the Argonauts-esque fight sequence, culminating with a showdown one of the absolute shoddiest villains in cinema. Samuel L. Jackson is fun in this, both campy and embracing the sheer absurdity of the role with a manic grin on his face, but his character is useless. Supposedly a heinous man with real Nazi overtones but in actuality he comes across as this effete waste of space who wouldn’t scare even the most timid of puppies.
Jackson’s character sums up the movie in many ways; dark seeming with a statement about the evils of Eugenics and racism but really just silly and totally unbelievable.