Why is Beetlejuice such a good movie? This is the question to which I keep returning when Tim Burton keeps making flops. Why was Beetlejuice so good, but other films that fit into the same ‘Burtoneseque’ space are steaming piles of garbage.
Tim Burton has not made a good film this decade. It is arguable that he hasn’t made a good film since the 1990s, and even the ’90s were littered with flops. So what gives?
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children shows that Burton can still get good actors to give solid performances and he can spray bucketloads of cash at (genuinely thrilling) special effects, but all of this is wasted in movies that have absolutely no point and diabolically awful scripts.
The plot is both a chaotic mess and formulaic. A young white boy who thinks he isn’t special discovers that he is special. He is, in fact, the only one special enough to deal with whatever crisis is befalling the world. And, importantly, nobody who has information relevant to his capacity to save the world is forthcoming with said information for reasons that are completely inexplicable.
We’ve been here many, many times before. The entire Harry Potter series is about a boy who was born with the ability to resolve the plot, but none of the adults will tell him what’s going on. Similarly, Percy Jackson, is about a boy born with magic dyslexia or some shit and also the mystical power to resolve the plot.
But MPHfPC takes it to a whole new level. Where Harry Potter and Percy Jackson were born with powers that would be helpful regardless of whether or not they decided to fix the crisis (and you sort of get the feeling that literally anybody else was also capable of resolving the plot of those series), the main character of MPHfPC (whose name I keep forgetting) is born with one and only one power: the ability to defeat the bad guys.
What a shitty superpower. Imagine if Superman were only capable of using his powers against one kind of enemy and completely powerless against literally everybody else in the universe. Old mate protagonist has the magical ability to see Samuel L Jackson and his friends which, given that Samuel L Jackson appears to be the only person of colour in this entire film, does seem kinda like a racist power. His power is effectively the equivalent of Richard Dawkin’s ability to see creeping Sharia. Nobody else can detect it and it will kill everybody you love if Richard Dawkins doesn’t call it out.
Tim Burton gives us a world of superpowered children threatened by powerful adults who want to eat their eyes. To protect the children, kindly adults create time bubbles that allow the children to play out a single day, forever and ever, in exactly the same location. Other time periods are accessible from that single day (somehow, don’t ask).
It only takes a moment’s thought to work out the flaw in this plan. The children never get older or stronger, and they are always available to whoever finds the time bubble. It’s basically like creating a magical fridge full of children’s eyes for the villains to discover.
And thus it is for our protagonist, a child from 2016 who travels back to the WWII to hang out with his grandfather’s childhood friends during the Blitz. I’m always quite uncomfortable with the framing of fantasy children’s stories during the Holocaust: ‘While six million Jews were being gassed, there was a magical war going on with little English children being under threat.’
Indeed, the film never really seems to understand the past as a distinct place. The main character goes back in time where things are pretty much the same as they are today, except at least one house isn’t bombed. The difference between 2016 and the 1940s is so slight that the main character can run across town and not realise that more than sixty years are missing. And then the use of the past as a location causes further issues of internal coherence: should the main character know that the children from WWII survived an attack from a villain travelling back in time because the attack did not happen in the timeline that he knew? From which time period is the villain, or is he somehow occupying all times at once?
By the time the end credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what purpose the movie served. The film would have worked a lot better without its main character and without the ‘We’re actually in the distant past, although you wouldn’t know it’ conceit. At least then it would have been a simple ‘Evil adults attack a house full of magical children’ movie. Better yet, scrap the children completely and replace them with teenagers/young adults. And give them personalities. And maybe only have like four or five of them instead of an uncountable infinity.
So back to the start. Why is Beetlejuice such a great movie? Because, ultimately, it’s a contest of ideas. The villain is Beetlejuice. He intercedes in a conflict between NIMBY ghosts and the avant garde next generation, escalating the conflict to the detriment of both parties. And then this plot is cloaked in Burton’s aesthetics, enhancing the storytelling by adding faux-horror to the scene.
MPHfPC doesn’t work because Burton’s aesthetics aren’t enough to hold a movie together alone. It’s the same problem that Big Fish, Dark Shadows, and Big Fish suffered: the aesthetics aren’t a substitute for plot. Most curious of all, MPHfPC and Dark Shadows weren’t original stories; what draws Tim Burton to unfilmable crap?
This is a skippable film.