Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an adaptation of the popular young adult novel, arrives with both the burden of wearing its many influences on its sleeve, and then having to transcend them. With a little X-Men here, a sprinkling of Harry Potter there, the film treads in opulent fantasy and themes that are the stuff of sturdy all-ages drama: the battle between good and evil, say, or the struggle of the different against the oppressive and mundane. In fact, director Tim Burton would seem well-suited to this material. Embracing throughout his career the strange, the disaffected, and the outcast—all of which apply here.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’s opening sequence finds Burton upending the suburban, sunbaked blandness of south Florida with the menace of a faceless monster and an old man so hysterically in fear for his life, he calls upon his teenage grandson Jake (Asa Butterfield) for help. The outcome of that plea compels Jake to visit an island off the coast of Wales and find the orphanage in which his grandfather (Terence Stamp) took refuge during World War II. Though it had been destroyed during a bombing raid, some fortuitous time travel returns Jake to the time when the vine-covered chateau stood proud amidst its gorgeous gardens and topiaries. It’s here that Burton efficiently introduces each of the peculiar children, whose powers are refreshingly more oddball than awe inspiring (one boy is like a human hive for bees; a girl can grow plant life at will), while a couple of others have the more stock abilities of invisibility and strength. One in particular, Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone), with his elongated nose, observant eyes and sharp features, looks like he emerged fully formed from the pages of a classic children’s storybook. He’s a boy of dandy sartorial style, his taste for fine clothing surpassed only by the wondrous ability to shine dreams from his eye onto a projection screen for an evening’s entertainment.
The protective headmistress keeping them all in tow is Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who can transform into her namesake bird and sports a long black coat and blue-streaked hair swept into waves atop her head. Green plays Peregrine as forthright and cheerful, someone who cuts a regal figure and commands respect while being accessible and loving. Among her duties, she must stand outside the home at the same time each night, waiting for the German bombers to arrive, and literally wind back her clock to prevent disaster. But despite being in this time loop, neither Miss Peregrine nor her children are safe from the evil desires of Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who will stop at nothing to achieve immortality—and that includes killing all those with powers like Peregrine. Unfortunately, Barron’s plan ends up being hardly that involved or inventive, and the finale it precipitates is under-imagined.
That forgettable showdown is the low point of a movie that excites in fits and starts. In its grandest segment, the children set out on a rescue mission by raising a sunken wreck just off their coastline. Making the vessel seaworthy requires a few of the children to put their talents to use, and Burton turns their efforts into something majestic. This thrilling sequence follows them to a seaside amusement park in England, where the kids, Jake among them, must enter battle to save themselves. A pleasingly Burton-esque scene ensues: Skeletons get the Ray Harryhausen treatment so they can do battle set to a lively techno score.
If there’s a problem with these sections, it’s that they suggest what the rest of film might have been—something more rousing, charming, and, above all, emotionally involving. That the movie hangs together is a tribute to Burton, who is ready as ever to play with his high-contrast, super-saturated colors. There’s also the efficient, unfussy way he constructs a scene, allowing us room to breathe and to truly understand the coherent space into which we’re immersed. What’s disappointing is that Burton doesn’t elevate the so-so material, which seems well-positioned to function as a resonant allegory about the costs of war, being without loving parents and the struggles of being different. In the composite, the series of beautifully framed and well-acted scenes is less than the sum of its parts. That’s due in part to a lack of backstory about the children and Miss Peregrine. We wonder whether in their private moments they long to escape their temporal prison. Are they afraid of a world full of non-peculiars? By avoiding their inner lives and emotions, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children trades depth for novelty.
Butterfield (Ender’s Game, Hugo) also has to shoulder some of the blame for the movie’s lack of resonance. He gives a realistic, emotionally committed performance that’s also the most boring one in the film. Next to him, even his out-of-touch dad seems a fount of personality. Jake’s vital to the plot because of his peculiar power, but he’s also our conduit into this fantastical world, and his muted reaction to the wonders around him and his responsibility is too counterintuitive.
What we’re left with is an assemblage of familiar elements that never finds its emotional core. Without it, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children remains memorable not for what it does well, but for what it might have been.
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman (screenplay); Ransom Riggs (novel)
Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, and Judi Dench
Release date: September 30, 2016