Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a stuffy, supernatural period piece that fluctuates between “dull” and “exciting,” the latter description being lost in the former’s grasp. Tim Burton takes a more restrained route when adapting Ransom Riggs’ novel (screenplay by Jane Goldman), which is a breath of fresh air compared to previous endeavors like Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows (even Big Eyes, to a degree) – but it’s still a tepid affair.
What’s essentially X-Men: First Class meets The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and women) takes entirely too long to uncover excitement, as the production opts for a dusty generational perspective instead of fantastical teen orphan adventure. It’s macabre fairytale-telling through strange character casting and minimal definition – certainly not the spectacle Burton hoped for.
Asa Butterfield stars as Jake Portman, an outcast Floridan whose best friend is his Grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp). While at work one day, Jake receives a distressing call and goes to check on Abe, who he finds eyeless and dying behind his house. Abe tells him to “follow the maps and discover the truth,” which is a reference to the whimsical tales of a special house filled with “peculiar” children Jake was told of while growing up.
Everyone assumed Abe’s words were insanity, until Jake meets the real Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green) after locating her makeshift orphanage of special inhabitants. It’s not long before Jake finds himself paling around with floating girls and invisible boys, only to become embroiled in a fight between good versus evil. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) threatens the lives of Miss Peregrine’s flock, but with the help of Jake’s previously unknown “peculiar” trait, they just might be able to survive any unwanted attacks…
While that might sound like prime Gothic heroism, Goldman’s hole-y, momentum-lacking script is a map that only leads to droll world-building. We’re introduced to Butterfield’s character through emotionless interactions between Jake and his father Franklin, an elder who is painfully played by an American-accented Chris O’Dowd (to a distressingly unnatural degree). Then we’re *quickly* led to Miss Peregrine’s “time loop” location (through terrible parenting and far-away travels), only to hit a wall of excessive exposition that continually explains the same plot devices in different – and increasingly frustrating – ways. For a two-hour movie not to introduce its villain until the final forty-or-so minutes (feels like Sammy J is only around for the last ten, if even), you’d hope the building blocks would provide enough entertainment. Sadly, they’re grey and generically shaped, and arranged quite shoddily.
When we meet Miss Peregrine’s children, we’ve already endured lifeless scenes between O’Dowd and Butterfield with the expectation of freakshow children to pick our spirits up. Sadly, Burton forgets to even properly introduce some of the bag-headed characters who run about Miss Peregrine’s grounds, and the ones he does highlight are never established beyond their “peculiarity.”
Ella Purnell finds the most depth in her air-bending balloon-person – Emma Bloom – and I rather liked Lauren McCrostie as the team’s Human Torch equivalent (Olive), but most other children are voiceless caricatures – or even worse, strange sociopaths. Why the deviant Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) is able to live amongst finer-natured kiddies is beyond me, as he creates life only to have it battle viciously until death. Doesn’t seem to gel with the more classic sweethearts like Raffiella Chapman’s monster-headed girly or petite Pixie Davies playing the world’s strongest pipsqueak. The children are sometimes fun, but performances remind of chewing gum that loses flavor almost instantaneously once “peculiar” charms fade.
Nothing exciting truly happens until Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children reaches a conflicting climax, as “Hollow” beasts (Slenderman ripoffs) battle a skeleton boat crew Enoch brings to life with his psychotic control of human hearts, or something (psychosis is his peculiarity?).
In this moment – when period atmosphere switches from 1943 to 2016 – audiences are hit over the head by a completely different, and wholly more inviting film. Peregrine’s pupils test their powers against hilarious odds (still going about things in nonsensical ways, AS ENOCH PUTS DOWN A WEAPON TO WASTE TIME), but we’re immediately teased by a much more lively Burton vision that’s so desperately missing from the previous hour-and-a-half or so. A dry, disenchanted buildup plays into an infinitely more dominating finale that comes and goes like a brief burst of magician’s smoke.
Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Green make scenes more digestible based on appearance alone, especially how Jackson is able to turn exposition into hilariously frustrating monologues. Barron rambles on and on about his exact plans and the actual scenarios unfolding around him, fed up with his team of Hollows and the dastardly henchmen who can’t finish a single job. This is the “fun” that’s so noticeably amiss, as Green’s prime-and-proper darkness isn’t able to right Burton’s slowly derailing introduction into Ransom Riggs’ established literary world. Instead, we endure wretched scenes of nothingness between a bird-watching father and his awkward, easily forgettable son. Or children who are not defined by personality, but an obscure trait they typically use at inopportune times. Or a relic of a story structure that’s less a shimmering antique, and more a torn and tattered book whose pages feel like they’ll crumble to dust in your hands.
There’s not much to say about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which is wholly disheartening once the talent involved is considered. Samuel L. Jackson – the film’s most endearing character – is underused and kept caged up, and British actors are cast in American roles only to struggle visibly with off-kilter accents. Characters are introduced and then never developed, as Tim Burton and Jane Goldman hope you’ll be too distracted by “peculiarity” to notice a lack of development. All these things and more waste what could have been a grimly tender coming-of-age story for outsiders and renegades alike, which this film is anything but. But hey, at least there’s a pretty nifty amusement park fight to look forward too – if you can even make it that far.
With Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton focuses all his energy on a dusty, far-too-droll buildup that's far from worth whatever short-lived excitement his finale brings.