Tim Burton (2012's "Dark Shadows") can do dark and whimsy in his sleep, and his
best films—from 1985's "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" to 1990's "Edward Scissorhands"
to 1994's "Ed Wood" —blend this macabre touch with poignant helpings of
vulnerability and heart. His latest effort has all the right ingredients, but
somehow mixes up the step-by-step instructions. Based on the best-selling 2011
novel by Ransom Riggs, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" goes
through the motions rather than allows itself, and its audience, to genuinely
feel. Not helping matters is an inherently jumbled plot, one that irresponsibly
defies the laws of time and physics while placing undue importance on characters
who for over seventy years have cheated their own natural fates.
Since childhood, Florida teenager Jacob "Jake" Portman (Asa Butterfield) has
been bewitched by grandfather Abe's (Terence Stamp) tales of his youth,
extraordinary stories about a home for peculiar children at which he once stayed
on the Welsh island of Cairnholm. When Jake stumbles upon Abe's body in the
woods behind his house, his eyes mysteriously plucked from his head, the boy
immediately knows his murder is somehow related to his fantastical past.
Encouraged by psychologist Dr. Golan (Allison Janney), Jake convinces dad
Franklin (Chris O'Dowd) to accompany him to Cairnholm as a way of making peace
with his grandpa's death. Upon arrival, however, he finds himself thrust into a
time warp to September 1943, on the eve of a German bombing which ultimately
destroyed the safe haven lived in by headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva
Green) and her special-powered charges. None of them, Jake realizes, have aged a
day since Abe resided with them all those decades ago. They are perfectly happy
repeating the same 24-hour loop, until their protection is suddenly threatened
by the appearance of maniacal scientist Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his coven
of monstrous Hollows.
Flashes of that old Burton magic flicker throughout "Miss Peregrine's Home for
Peculiar Children," but the visuals he and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel
(2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis") concoct only go so far in Jane Goldman's (2015's
"Kingsman: The Secret Service") mechanical screenplay. The characters—even leads
Jake, peculiar light-as-a-feather love interest Emma (Ella Purnell), and the
pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine—are undernourished, with little learned about them
through the course of the narrative. Jake's friendships with the children at
Peregrine's home—among them, the pyrokinetic Olive (Lauren McCrostie), the
invisible Millard (Cameron King), the necromantic Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), the
super-strong Bronwyn (Pixie Davies), and the extra-mouthed Claire (Raffiella
Chapman)—are sketched with the broadest of brushes, next to no time dedicated to
their respective bonds or the lives they led before they entered their current
time loop. Likewise, the villains of the piece are dullards, with the
shape-shifting Barron and the tall, gangly-limbed Hollows not half as creepy or
daunting as they should be.
The negligence of Jake's home life and his feelings of disconnection are barely
dealt with, with Chris O'Dowd (2014's "St. Vincent") and Kim Dickens (2014's
"Gone Girl") squandered in nothing roles as his parents. As Jake, Asa
Butterfield (2013's "Ender's Game") struggles to make the most of what's on the
page, his best moments the ones between himself and Ella Purnell's (2013's
"Kick-Ass 2") wide-eyed, soulful Emma. A scene where they explore a sunken ship
buried in the depths of the ocean is a technical marvel, if nothing else. Having
vividly played a number of villains in recent year, it is nice to see Eva Green
(2014's "300: Rise of an Empire") emanating warmth as the caring, watchful Miss
Peregrine. One wishes there was more meat to this character—Green's expressive
face suggests layers not otherwise plumbed by the final cut—but she at least
enlivens it with spiritedness.
"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" is notable for individual moments
of inspiration—the way the rustling leaves on the plant outside Jake's bedroom
window cast shadows of aliens tendrils, for example, or a haunting sequence
where Jake witnesses the turning-back of the time loop just as a bomb plummets
over Miss Peregrine's home, scored to Flanagan and Allen's upbeat "Run Rabbit
Run." The finale, set on a Blackpool boardwalk filled with carnival rides and a
squad of swashbuckling Harryhausen-esque skeletons, is imaginative in
conception, but not in delivery, undercut by a distinct lack of engagement in
the people on the screen and the plot they are in.
A lot is asked of Jake in "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." He must
risk his life to save people who have denied the harsh realities of the world as
well as the process of aging, all for the purpose of holding onto time loops
scattered across the globe that shouldn't even exist in the first place.
Pressure is also placed on our hero to give up those he loves and his own
present-day existence—something that is treated as frivolously as the decision
to walk to the mailbox. And, perhaps most discouraging of all, the film
irresponsibly treats death as a finicky temporary hurdle that one can reverse
without consequence, the natural order of the universe be damned. Sadly, Tim
Burton—who no doubt has plenty of better movies in his future, has gone from
talented director to not much more then an aesthetic brand name.