There is a much better film lying somewhere within the rubble of what exists as Tim Burton's latest motion picture, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a film that practically screams out for Burton's own peculiar sensibilities that have lain dormant over his most recent films with the exception of the extraordinary return to form found in Frankenweenie.
There are moments in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children that possess our beloved Tim Burton, though they are smushed together and smothered to death by Jane Goldman's impossibly indecipherable script that attempts, and mostly fails, to make sense of Ransom Riggs' source YA source material.
When the moments arrive, they are magical. This is the case, for example, in a lushly constructed and patiently brought to life scene where two young teens, Jake (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) and Emma (Ella Purnell, Kick-Ass 2), are floating to the bottom of the sea to one of Emma's secret getaways, the elaborate dining area of a long ago sunken cruise ship still possessing all the charm and all the spookery that one might expect. It's a beautiful scene made even more beautiful by Burton's ability to capture innocence and mystery and a little bit of fear all simultaneously.
Yet, there are far too few moments like this in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and far too many moments where one is left scratching one's head mumbling aloud "What exactly is this about anyway?"
The truth is I'm still not sure I know.
The story evolves around Jake, a fumbling and bumbling teenager with only semi-attentive parents, played by a fairly one-note Chris O'Dowd and a barely registering Kim Dickens, whose relationship with Jake's paternal grandfather (Terence Stamp) is so strained by the elderly man's seemingly dementia-fueled magical tales of Ymbrynes and and monsters and much more that they can barely trouble themselves to grieve when Jake finds the man dead in his back yard with his eyes having been mysteriously plucked out. Jake, however, does grieve and is promptly sent to a grief counselor (Allison Janney) who sides with Jake when the young man discovers the existence of this mysterious school in Wales that his grandfather had always talked about and decides that visiting the place might help him find some sense of closure. So, Jake and his father, a watcher and photographer of birds, head off for the tiny village of Cairnholm in search of answers or closure or at least some decent photographs.
The truth, at least initially, seems impossibly tragic as Jake discovers that the school is in tatters having been intentionally bombed by the Germans in September 1943. It is only when he spies the familiar faces of peculiar children whose stories his grandfather had always told that he realizes that, just perhaps, there is another story left amongst the rubble.
The story that is told is unfathomably and unnecessarily complex, as we learn about Ymbrynes and loops and monsters. Oh my.
The pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) is an Ymbryne, a shape-shifting matriarch and protector of children who has created a loop, essentially meaning a moment in time that repeats itself such as in Groundhog Day, and it is in that 24-hour loop that she is able to protect herself and the children who live in her home including the aforementioned Emma, the hot-handed Olive (Lauren McCrostie), the grotesquely mechanically inclined Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) and others including an invisible boy prone to trickery, a pair of deceptively adorable twins, and a young girl whose ravenous nature is revealed in a quintessentially Burtonesque way.
The bad guys are led by Barron, portrayed by a clearly having fun Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, it's never completely clear why they're bad or how they're bad or what bad they're trying to achieve. We just know that they are bad, though I couldn't help but expect a little bit more given the film's abundant dependence on plot exposition and its just over two hour running time.
Tim Burton has always had a gift for creating magical worlds. Maybe more importantly, he's always trusted his audience's ability to follow him into those worlds and embrace the story and the characters involved. In Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, it feels like Burton doesn't trust his audience and the result is a film that feels stifled and constantly on the verge of emotional resonance but lost amidst the words that have no meaning.
Asa Butterfield, a gifted young British actor likely best known to American audiences for Hugo and the remarkable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, is doing his best to pull off an American accent yet his performance here feels muted and emotionally lacking. On the flip side, Eva Green once again impresses as she flutters about wrapped inside Colleen Atwood's elaborate and exquisite costuming. Purnell is a gem here, her Emma a wonderful combination of innocence and retro-styled romanticism. For the most part, supporting players are under-utilized and play second fiddle to the film's extraordinary production design and locales that include Belgium and U.S. settings.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children isn't a truly bad film, though it falls short of being the film Burton fans are likely hoping it will be. With moments of classic Burton surrounded by many more moments when the film feels like a mere shell of a Burton film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is never quite peculiar enough.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic