'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' Is All Style, No Sense
Tim Burton misses again, though his bizarre take on the superteam gimmick has its charms.
There are moments in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children that are truly magical. A boy puts a shiny monocle to his eye in a dark room when a sudden burst of light casts his dreams onto the opposite wall like a film projector. A blonde girl in a sky-blue dress floats like a kite by a treetop, tethered to the earth by a rope held by a boy with his jaw on the ground. Director Tim Burton has an enduring gift for creating unforgettable imagery, but has had trouble in recent years crafting stories that are as inspired as his twisted visual confections.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children isn’t Burton’s worst late-career offering; it features a standout performance from a surging actress with a big future, and actually does some interesting things in its first hour. However, despite its strengths, the film falls flat as a pancake in its incomprehensible, bumbling third act. Guided by Ransom Riggs’ YA novel on which the film is based, Burton riffs on X-Men and (to a lesser extent) Harry Potter, and while the combination may look winning on paper, the results are tragically clichéd and will likely leave fans of both Burton and the novel frustrated and confused.
To its credit, the movie does get off on the right foot, introducing us to a fantastical world of shape-shifters, reanimators, invisible monsters, and portals to the past (Burton’s got enough flair to hide how derivative it all is, at least for a while). Our proxy is Jake (Asa Butterfield, awkwardly donning an American accent), an ordinary teen living in a boring suburb in Florida travels to England with his father (Chris O’Dowd, whose American accent is even less convincing) where he finds a hidden gateway to the '40s in the Welsh Countryside. There, he’s greeted by a group of adorable oddities, kids with superpowers (they call them “peculiarities”) who live at a school run by headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who’s some kind of badass Mary Poppins.
The X-Men similarities are glaring but forgivable. That is, until the movie takes the aped premise and does nothing new with it. As in X-Men: First Class, we see the kids bond and bicker, using their powers to do household chores and entertain themselves. There’s the floating girl (Ella Purnell), a slithery lad named Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), who can bring inanimate objects to life by stuffing them with beating hearts, and some little ones who have less useful peculiarities (one has pet bees living in his gut, another can make all manner of flora grow fast).
The kids lead a relatively safe, repetitive existence in what Peregrine explains as a “time loop”, a period of 24 hours that resets and replays forever. That existence is, of course, threatened when a sharp-toothed baddie (Samuel L. Jackson, in camp mode) finds the time loop and invades. Predictably, the kids band together to topple their adversary, and that’s when the movie goes terribly wrong.
Somehow, the story’s third act manages to be both trite and spectacularly confusing, with action sequences that feel familiar but make no sense. Without spoiling things, some characters, both good and bad, appear to stand idle as their allies get decimated by the opposition during the final battle, jumping into and out of the fray seemingly at random. It’s terribly clunky stuff, and it sadly sinks the film completely. Each of the main characters has an emotional epiphany amid all the commotion, but the feelings get lost in the whirlwind of illogical events.
Burton’s signature aesthetic often saves the day when the film is on the brink of disaster. The finalé sees an army of skeletons battle evil, invisible monsters on a pier, which doesn’t make a lick of sense but looks incredibly cool and harkens back to the glory days of Ray Harryhausen special effects. Another throwback to the claymation greats is a fun moment that sees Enoch reanimate two dolls and force them to fight on a tabletop; the handmade, stop-motion look still has a certain magic to it.
Also keeping the film afloat is Green, who’s perfectly prim, tough-as-nails, and gives the film a sense of weight that the younger actors try but fail to deliver. Butterfield is up and down, at times looking a little lost. He’s a natural hero type and has some good moments (his exchanges with O’Dowd are slick), but he often doesn’t seem to project quite enough when the scene calls for big emotion.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will likely be another forgotten entry in Burton’s expansive oeuvre, but its charms are not to be written off. Some of the bizarre character designs do capture the imagination, and kids used to gorging on blockbuster YA schlock will likely find themselves marveling (no pun intended) at the movie’s alternative take on the “gifted youngsters” gimmick.