'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'
At this point, it’s almost difficult to remember that Tim Burton once used to be one of the most excitingly unpredictable and creative filmmakers in Hollywood. Today, he mostly just latches onto popular properties, tosses a thin coat of his aesthetic on top with a few of his regular actors, and then sits back at lets the established story tell itself. That’s certainly true of ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’, a movie that finds moments of the old Burton magic amongst mountains of the routine.
The whole thing kicks off in Dullsville, Florida where a teen boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield) learns that his kooky old granddad (Terence Stamp) was never that crazy after all. He sees a giant gray Slenderman-ish monster eat grandpappy’s eyes and then learns of his supernatural fighting past. That leads the boy to Ireland and the titular Home for Peculiar Children. Essentially it’s a Victorian school for kiddies with bizarre superpowers such as flight or the ability to make inanimate objects spring to life. The place is run by Eva Green’s stern Mary Poppins type, who keeps the school caught in a time loop, reliving the same day in 1943 over and over. Jake fits in just fine with the peculiars, but unfortunately his discovery of the school also brings along the evil Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a convoluted agenda involving lots of murder and eye eating.
The film is based on an apparently popular Young Adult novel (you know, like every other blockbuster that isn’t based on a comic book), and boy-oh-boy does it feel like that. The premise is strong and I’d imagine the books are witty and imaginative. Certain sequences in the film are downright delightful. However, Jane Goldman’s script feels far too rushed in order to cram in every character and event from the novel. Individual scenes may work just fine, but they’re jumbled together in a such a structure-less and overwrought manner that it often feels like watching a movie and its sequel crammed together. Most of the kids don’t get much of a chance to develop characters beyond whatever their specific creepy power might be. To be fair, that’s often to the movie’s advantage given that that they aren’t particularly good actors.
On the other hand, Eva Green is quite good and continues her streak of being the best part of disappointing projects. Her kind-hearted caregiver with magic powers and monster-killing crossbow skills lights up the screen with every appearance, nailing the mix of malevolence and irreverence that the movie doesn’t always get right. Sam Jackson is also a delight as the fang-toothed villain, looking like a Tim Burton cartoon brought to life and cackling with evil glee in every scene.
As for Burton himself, the filmmaker only seems half interested in the project. His signature style is somewhat subdued to fit the aesthetic of washed-out early photographs. The movie has flourishes like a little stop-motion monster mayhem here and a beautifully designed sunken ship there, but for the most part Burton serves the material, which is odd for him. When it comes time for the big action climax, the director seems to lose interest altogether, causing the movie to sputter to a stop.
Despite source material that offered the potential for some classic Tim Burton visual overload, ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is yet another of the filmmaker’s half-hearted late career efforts. Perhaps he’s just done this sort of thing too many times before. The book was clearly influenced by his pop Gothic humor along with healthy doses of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. Sadly, Burton seemed so disinterested in elevating the material that the producers may as well have hired one of his legion of imitators to do it instead.
That said, the movie isn’t a disaster. Burton has made far worse. It’s just a frustrating experience because the better movie this could have been remains just slightly out of reach.