“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a fairly safe addition to Tim Burton’s career. It’s too bad that its unfocused writing holds back the cast from reaching their full potential, especially considering its promising premise. Certainly a visual director, Burton has recognized this artistic blind spot in his work before, having stated, “I wouldn’t know a good script if it bit me in the face.” But considering the film is an adaptation of a compelling New York Times best-selling YA novel, it is tragic to see a a source material prime for commercial and critical success not be taken advantage of.
Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) stars as Jake Portman, a teenage boy from Florida who is close to his grandfather, Abraham (Terence Stamp, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”). Abraham hails from Poland and was a small boy when Nazis occupied the country and forced his family to send him to Wales for safety, where he lived in Miss Peregrine’s orphanage. He tells Jake fantastical stories of his travels with scary demons and creatures that capture his grandson’s imagination. While Jake’s parents tell him the monsters in Abraham’s stories are his grandpa’s way of coping with his haunting memories of escaping the Nazis, he is not willing to let go so easily.
When Abraham dies under mysterious circumstances, Jake ends up travelling to Wales for closure and upon entering the orphanage is transported back to 1943, where he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, “Penny Dreadful”) herself, along with the special children, or “peculiars”, who live there. If you’ve ever seen an “X-Men” movie, the group dynamics are very similar, which is not surprising given that screenwriter Jane Goldman wrote the very script for “X-Men: First Class,” along with the story to “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
The story then loops itself like “Groundhog Day,” but there are so many plot points stuffed into the movie it is not clear what direction it’s heading in once the action starts. The gist of it is some of the peculiars have gone bad and are led by a peculiar-eating Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson, “Age of Ultron”), which ultimately leads to fighting as the climax. Frankly, the fighting doesn’t make a difference either way, considering the bulk of the film was seeing the peculiars do their thing. As an added bonus for the YA novel crowd, a romance between Jake and weightless, floating peculiar Emma (Ella Purnell, “Never Let Me Go”) wedges its way in as one of the few recognizable story arcs throughout the film. It’s good to see plot development invested where it’s needed.
There is a whole lot of CGI is in “Miss Peregrine’s,” but every minute detail pays off to bring to life the fantasy of Chandler Riggs’s novel. It is thankfully difficult to tell where the green screen ends and real props begin because the cinematography does such a beautiful job of capturing the characters looking in place within their environment, in the fantastical part of the past Miss Peregrine inhabits and in the present.
Though Burton is in his element here, this is a letdown, more of what he’s already done. The fantastical visuals are the same ones used in Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” series, with the familiar dark tone and even British setting featured in many of his other movies. The way the lonely protagonist ends up winning the day is executed here with the gothic sentiment Johnny Depp has portrayed countless times before. The young cast of peculiars fare well, but aren’t given a chance to dominate a scene and show their skill. Butterfield, for his part, faces the same issue he had in “Ender’s Game’ where he can’t stand out from the vast and poorly-defined YA novel universe his character is enveloped in.
After Tim Burton brought more attention to how the entire cast is white by making confusing comments excusing the lack of racial diversity in “Miss Peregrine’s,” one can take comfort in at least not seeing frequent collaborators Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter cast in yet another one of Burton’s films (the only Burtonesque trope he doesn’t follow in this movie). Instead, we get the screen-commanding Samuel L. Jackson rocking the role of Barron, collaborating with the director as the first person of color to lead a Burton film. God bless 2016 — and God bless the talented cast and crew with their next project if they thought this fuzzy blockbuster was going to help their bright stars burn brighter.