Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/09/16 00:18:30

"Peculiar" is not the same as "interesting"."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

There was a joke about "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" being "Tim Burton's X-Men" when the trailers started to appear, and while it was mostly about the veteran director's signature style, it's worth asking why Twentieth Century Fox, which by dint of a contract that Marvel Comics undoubtedly regrets has the rights to make movies with the real thing more or less in perpetuity, would bother with this mostly-bland adaptation of a young-adult novel. Burton (with an assist from Samuel L. Jackson) is able to jazz it up at the climax, but it's kind of dull otherwise.

The first child we met isn't particularly peculiar; Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) is a thoroughly ordinary teenager in present-day Tampa, ignored by girls and harassed by his classmates. He's closer to his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than his father, and comes running when the nonagenarian calls, in a fit of seeming dementia, saying that the monsters from the bedtime stories he used to tell Jake are attacking. Finding the man with his eyes gouged out suggests something horrible happened, and the quest to find out what leads Jake and father Franklin (Chris O'Dowd) to the village in Wales where Abe stayed as a Polish refugee before joining the British Army in World War II. Despite Abe still getting letters from headmistress Miss Peregrine, the orphanage was destroyed during the war. Well, sort of; Jake soon finds that Peregrine (Eva Green), Abe's old friends Emma (Ella Purnell), Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), Olive (Lauren McCrostie), and several younger children are alive and well, having been in a time loop that repeated the day before the Manor was bombed ever since, and which also keeps them hidden from Barron (Jackson), an evil Peculiar whose immortality experiments have left him and his cohorts as monsters that only Jake can see.

It's a Tim Burton fantasy, so plenty of weirdness is to be expected, but it seems incredibly telling that all the weirdness is on the surface, with almost no indication that any sort of thought has been given to what is underneath the Burton-branded design. I'm curious how much more explicit the book is about Abe being a European Jew who fled and then fought the Nazis; a film pitched to an audience old enough to enjoy some gross-out moments wouldn't seem to need to pussyfoot around the way this one does despite having a villain who is literally rounding up members of a persecuted minority for extermination and experimentation. The filmmakers really don't seem to be into metaphor at all, with the Peculiars' super-powers often seeming to be assigned randomly, especially when folks have more than one, rather than being a way to amplify who they are as characters.

Maybe it's okay to set aside some of the the time travel plotting that doesn't make a single lick of sense because it doesn't matter how, exactly, doing something in 2016 is going to change events after the repeated day in 1943 because it really doesn't matter (although, even by time-loop movie standards, it's nonsense), but what about everything else involved? This film gives basically zero time to how even the six-year-olds at the home have lived for eighty years, how they all know that the world outside is passing them by in amazing ways but generally seem utterly incurious about anything that might mess with the 1940s aesthetic. And aside from a few half-baked bits about Enoch maybe being jealous of the attention Emma gives Jake, there's no sign that there was ever any sort of drama around them being teenagers and not having a lot of romantic options.

By not giving this sort of thing a whole lot of attention, the filmmakers leave the characters that the audience is supposed to empathize with somewhat hollow, and there's not a whole lot the young cast can do with that lack of individuality. They're capable enough performers, and is nice that they by and large play up their happiness to be with people who get them and abilities to do cool things rather than their angst at being outcasts, but none of them can give the characters much that couldn't be deduced from their costuming; Asa Butterfield, in particular, is vanilla enough that a large chunk of the first act may be spent wondering why the movie is even bothering with a present-day element. Even some of the more experienced actors seem to just tread water, although Dame Judi Dench and Terence Stamp can still each make their ten minutes great. Even Eva Green, usually able to make her part of a movie entertaining through sheer force of will, has trouble - she's fun as a chipper Mary Poppins who will cheerfully cut anyone who threatens her charges, but she's mostly there to half-explain things and look silly smoking a pipe because someone decided the character wasn't quite obviously eccentric enough on the page. It makes Samuel L.Jackson showing up as the villain kind of a relief; not only is something dangerous about to happen, but he's been hired to do Sam Jackson to the extent that one wonders how much he's improvising.

He doesn't show up until fairly late - Goldman and Burton spend a lot of time introducing the world, including a lot of names for different types of Peculiars that will be forgotten before the credits roll. It's not just Jackson doing his thing that makes the movie finally kick into gear at that point, though, as Burton finally gets to stop being a designer and direct as things actually start moving. The bulk of the movie isn't totally without its moments - Burton, Goldman, original author Ransom Riggs et al have an eye for little ways Peculiars can use their abilities and non-Peculiar adults can be absurd, and Burton has refined giving the audience a look at something imperfect, detailed, and unusual to an art form. There's even a bit of stop-motion thrown in for old time's sake. But it's in the climactic action set-piece, when he's directing action as all the things he'd set up earlier in the movie play out and his camera dances from one bit to another without overwhelming the audience, leaving just enough time to notice fun things happening in the margins, that a viewer might be reminded that Burton is actually a talented director, not just the aesthetic brand name is easy to think of him as being.

It takes a whole lot longer to get there than it should, unfortunately, and in the meantime the audience is being bored with half-baked ideas and all the wrong details, with an entire much-more-interesting adventure relegated to a 30-second montage in the epilogue. Burton does his part well, but for most of the film his part is just the surface, and there's not nearly enough underneath.

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