Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is the best Tim Burton film since Sweeney Todd, but that does not make it one of his best films. Though the source material from Ransom Riggs feels tailor made for the veteran filmmaker’s unique visual flare, the final product feels a bit too bloated with enough melodrama to rival the next teen mega-franchise.
The world of Miss Peregrine is one where magic lies around every corner, but most people cannot see it because they are not—you guessed it—peculiar. Those who can are born with unique abilities that range from practical (like super strength) to bizarre (like a mouth in the back of your head), and they are cared for by a subset of all-female peculiars called Ymbrynes who possess the power to create loops in time where each day resets and nobody ages.
If you need to stop now and read that again to comprehend it all go right ahead. This film has a lot of ideas to present and just over two hours to do so while telling a story that ties everything together—and to his credit, Burton gives it his best shot.
We enter this world through the eyes of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy grieving over the strange and untimely death of his beloved grandfather. Jake learned of Miss Peregrine’s home through stories his grandpa would tell, but in recent years he had come to believe they were all tall tales created to entertain a gullible young boy. He soon learns the school is indeed real, and together with his father (Chris O’Dowd) he ventures to the tiny island where the home is said to reside.
Needless to say, Jake finds Miss Peregrine (Eva Green at her absolute best) and her children, but not before learning that time travel exists. The film jumps between present day—which includes numerous conflicts between Jake and his father—and the seemingly perfect world where the peculiars live their lives. The narrative attempts to balance the wonder of the Peregrine’s world with a grounded story of family hurting for connection, but the second one never finds the footing or resolution needed to demand much interest. Peregrine and the children that need her protection are far more interesting, and aside from a few good quips from scribe Jane Goldman the real world story is stuff we’ve seen a million times before.
I don’t know if Butterfield is trying to make amends for Ender’s Game by tackling another popular adaptation, but his presence and delivery does not appear to have evolved much in the time between films. As a leading actor presented with access to a world of impossible possibilities he cannot find a look of true interest to save himself (no matter how wide he forces his eyes). His best moments come in the scenes he shares with Ella Purnell, and even then she’s leading the way.
Once the world of peculiars is established, all the awe and wonder is almost immediately washed away in a sea of teen melodrama and what feels like an endless string of setup scenes leading to the inevitable kiss that these big budget, teen-centric stories always demand. Jake is literally surrounded by people who have led lives far longer than his own with abilities he just recently came to know were even possible and his only concern is whether or not everyone—and more specifically, Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell)—likes him. The lack of exploration and inquiry into the altogether new reality Jake’s just encountered is maddening, and it feels presented so specifically with the hope of being able to pull the curtain back “just a bit more” with a sequel.
The magical world of Peregrine is presented through the ever-so-slightly twisted and macabre lens of Burton. Aesthetically speaking it’s still his most ‘normal’ looking film by a country mile, but when the story presents opportunities for his signature flourishes he delivers in a big way. Whether it’s the film’s eyeball-eating villains or an excuse to make an army of skeletons from a doomed cruise ship battle invisible monsters, Burton blends the spectacular, creepy, and goofy as only he can. If only the story allowed more opportunities for such moments to occur it might be poised to spawn one (or several) more films.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a film that somehow managed to recruit Judy Dench into a tiny supporting role, yet lacks all sense of intensity or thrills. How a film can accomplish such a casting feat while failing one of the basic necessities of any truly great movie is a question as old as cinema. A literal and beautifully rendered world of possibilities is squandered on well-worn territory and an abundance of setup that ultimate fails to deliver anything of note. Maybe the source material is to blame, but given that the book spawned two more titles I am inclined to think it’s something wrong with the production itself. There are many great parts to this film, as well as a commanding performance from Eva Green, but it never comes together in a meaningful or memorable way.