“Miss Peregrine” Should Be More Peculiar

Like a strange genetic hybrid of X-Men and Harry Potter covered in a high-gloss coat of candy-colored, Hot Topic-approved eccentricity, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children could best be described as…well, peculiar. It’s both dense and thin, both lush and empty, and both sincere and mercenary. It’s the latest film from a director who’s billed as a “visionary” in all the promotional materials but who lost his vision years ago.

The story itself revolves around 16-year-old Jake (Asa Butterfield). After Jake’s grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) is attacked and killed by a nightmarish creature that only Jake can see and hear, Jake heads to the coast of Wales to track down a children’s home that Abe claims to have grown up in during World War II. While the home appears to be a burnt-out and abandoned shell of its former self in the modern day, Jake discovers that in fact that house is flourishing and its inhabitants alive thanks to the efforts of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who protects the children under her care from the outside world by keeping the house in a time loop where every day is September 3, 1943. It soon becomes clear, however, that the dark forces that killed Abe are chasing Jake himself, and that the stories Jake was told about Miss Peregrine, her “peculiar” children, and the monsters that hunt them might be all too real.

Real ladies use crossbows.

In the world of the film, “peculiar” is a euphemism to describe people who are born different, with special powers that separate them from normal humanity and lead to them to be ostracized and even hated by society at large. You could call them “mutants” if that makes you more comfortable; the film uses the term “peculiarity” in the exact same manner that the X-Men films use the phrase “mutant power.” “Peculiar” also describes the contradictory, occasionally frustrating nature of the film itself, rife with dichotomies that are only sometimes intentional.

The biggest peculiarity of the whole thing is director Tim Burton himself. On paper, this seems like it should be the ideal vehicle for Burton’s trademark approach. The film is based on a book which itself was based on a series of vintage trick photographs that author Ransom Riggs found at antique sales. A period piece about misunderstood children with special gifts is completely and totally in Burton’s wheelhouse, perhaps a bit too much so. While Burton fills the frame with stunning images, obsessive detail, and a host of gorgeous Colleen Atwood costumes, the overall effect feels largely muted, even generic. “Burtonesque” has been a subgenre unto itself for a long time now, and like his disappointingly tame adaptation of Dark Shadows or his self-indulgent take on Alice in Wonderland, Burton feels like he’s imitating himself instead of creating anything new.

And he's still using the same blue filters.

Jane Goldman’s script likewise feels like it should fit well with Burton’s style, but there seems to be an odd kind of translation barrier between the language either filmmaker uses. Goldman, whose best work has been with her frequent collaborator Matthew Vaughn, never seems to take herself quite as seriously as Burton does, and her genre-savvy-bordering-on-genre-sarcastic approach seems at odds with Burton’s dry, ironically-macabre charm. Both Goldman and Burton do a fine, if not always exemplary job on their own, but they don’t sync as well as they should. Both should be commended, however, for keeping the film relatively self-contained and solid enough to stand on its own without any foreknowledge of the source material.

Part of that disconnect could be the fact that the filmmakers are trying to cram a whole lot of narrative into two hours, so much so that the plot itself often gets lost in the mythology of the setting. The first half of the film feels almost entirely like exposition, and even then things don’t seem adequately explained. How the time loops fit into the mainstream flow of time and space, for instance, never really seems to be understood even by the people making the film, and there’s almost no context presented for how the children fit into society or how they came to the home in the first place. There’s a whole lot of what, but not a whole lot of why, and the attention to world-building prevents a great deal of the emotional arcs and metaphorical flourishes of the story from taking hold.

One might even say that they float away.

What makes up for a lot of this, however, is the cast, who almost uniformly acquit themselves well within the tools that they’re given. Asa Butterfield’s Jake is a bit of a blank slate, but that makes sense both in-universe and out of it. Jake’s sense of wonder and imagination has been beaten out him by society for years when we meet him, and from a purely logistical standpoint, he’s the audience surrogate and benefits from a bit of anonymity. It’s clear that Butterfield himself is committed to the role and trying to do right by the material, and that’s admirable in and of itself. He never quite gels with Ella Purnell, who pays the aerokinetic peculiar Emma, his YA-franchise-mandated love interest. But Purnell herself is effortlessly charming as well as equal parts vulnerable and heroic, and she manages to sell the coupling almost entirely on her own.

The commanding center of the film is Eva Green’s Miss Peregrine, and given that Peregrine herself comes off as a combination of Mary Poppins, Charles Xavier, and Helena Bonham Carter before she became infected with incurable whimsy, one could say that Green is practically perfect in every way. Her hold on the character is as tight as Peregrine’s prescise diction and exacting understanding of time, and she shifts from maternal to bad-ass to maternally bad-ass and back with fluid grace. The film brightens up every time she’s on screen, and that makes the sections where she’s absent (which are numerous and prolonged) seem relatively staid. She barely interacts with the other big-name cameos in the film, which include Rupert Everett, Judi Dench, and a deliciously over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson, and it seems like a supremely wasted opportunity.

The mistress of a home for peculiar children is never late.

Even if Burton doesn't always seem to have his heart in things, there are still occasional flashes of his old, burning-black self here and there. An extended sequence where Miss Peregrine details the creation of the monstrous hollowgasts is a truly unsettling side-trek into Cronenberg-style body horror that pushes up against the very limits of the PG-13 rating. It’s injects a welcome dose of Victorian terror that highlights the relatively safe and predictable nature of the rest of the film. The hollowgasts themselves are impressively sinister, like stop-motion, cosmic-horror versions of the Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A climactic battle between the hollowgasts and a small army of animated skeletons not only pays loving homage to the iconic Ray Harryhausen but feels like Burton is finally letting himself go and having a bit of fun with his own film.

If the rest of the film had been a little looser and a little darker, Burton might have had a brilliant return-to-form on his hands instead of the style-by-numbers, Burtonesque production that resulted. What starts out promisingly enough — and with a classic opening credits montage, to boot — soon gets dragged down by typical young-adult tropes and story beats and threatens to squelch any of the idiosyncratic touches that Burton used to be known for. It’s charming, and it has more than its share of entertaining moments, but it rarely rises to the level of what would be defined as what Miss Peregrine herself calls “peculiar.” Like the peculiar home itself, cinema has evolved but Burton seems content to keep replaying the same day over and over again. But at least it’s a good day.

FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-