by Michael Henley
Some fantasy movies draw you into their rich worlds, and others leave you frustratingly at arm’s length. The latter experience most describes Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a convoluted fantasy adventure that’s regretfully awash with cumbersome mythology, confusing rules and no real characters to latch onto. On paper (as it was in Ransom Riggs’ YA source novel, which I have not read), this must have been a great pitch for a potential franchise—it’s Harry Potter meets X-Men, essentially. But the film pretty much stays at the pitch stage: it’s a collection of images and ideas half-heartedly fighting for attention, and not enough of a story.
Perhaps the fault is Tim Burton’s. You might think he is the perfect conductor for this plot, which is about misfits with bizarre superpowers (or at least weird deformities) living in a protected time bubble where it’s always 1946 Wales. But upon further inspection, maybe the pairing is too apt. Burton has made a long career on telling stories about weird outcasts, and it’s possible he might by now have said everything he can on the subject. Certainly this would speak to the downward slope he’s found himself in, by my reckoning. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the ones who thinks Burton hasn’t made a great film since 1994’s Ed Wood.)
Certainly Burton directs Miss Peregrine as if he’s a little burnt-out and bored. He echoes themes from past work frequently here, almost reflexively, and he relies on his standard grab bag of tropes (dreamlike atmosphere; pale-skinned and frail heroic creatures; Grang Guignol monsters; a studied, melancholic sense whimsy). What’s missing is any grand structure or unifying purpose—the constant special effects feel like disconnected, freestanding images, and some of the more ambitious sequences (like the raising of a luxury liner from the ocean floor) lack joy and delight. Even a climax involving a battle between lumbering beasts and a klatch of sword-wielding skeletons just kinda lies there apathetically, as if Burton can’t work up much enthusiasm to even enjoy this on the storyboard level. And trust me, if you’re looking for someone to get excited about a Harryhausen-esque battle involving reanimated skeletons, I’m your man.
The potential was there, I think, at least in the broad strokes. The plot involves a present-day Floridian named Jake (Asa Butterfield), and his entrance into a mysterious netherworld that intersects invisibly with ours, where people with extraordinary abilities can escape persecution. Via clues left by his deceased grandfather (Terence Stamp), he travels to the Welsh coast with his father (Chris O’Dowd) a character who is one of Burton’s stock, dopey non-weirdos who gets sprayed with scorn simply for the crime of existing. Splitting off from his useless dad, Jake happens upon a pocket of time that only he can enter: here, it’s always 1946, the island is dotted with peculiar children, and all is lorded over by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who is benevolent and kindhearted and powerful: she can reset time and protects the children by way of a temporal loop that always ends right before a Nazi bombing run blows the house to smithereens. Sure. Green, a performer who can always find a way to inject some life into a role (see the otherwise dismal Dark Shadows or, better yet, her tour de force on Showtime’s recently-concluded Penny Dreadful), seems lost in the material: she makes Miss Peregrine good-hearted and arch and sweet and kind of a bore.
Actually, that’s not fair, because the whole cast is on the dull side, even counting the flat and disaffected Butterfield as our lead (his peculiarity is revealed late in the game—for a while the only possibility is how uninteresting he is). When we get to the sequences all about introducing the other mutants, their powers are underwhelming and the actors don’t have much to work with. There’s, just to provide an incomplete list, an inexplicably surly bully named Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) who can animate objects, a girl (Lauren McCrostie) who can make things real hot by touching them, an invisible boy (Cameron King) who his best work in the nude (because his clothes are visible, you see), and a waif named Emma (Ella Purnell) who can float except when she wears lead shoes. If the X-Men were a basketball team, I regret to say these kids would sit on the bench all season.
But that’s not the problem, really. The most surprising problem about this movie, given the material and director involved, is Burton’s utter disinterest in defining these kids other than by way of their respective gimmicks. Do they have hopes, fears, relationships with each other or insecurities? Do they ever worry about trying to expand their powers, or wonder what things they might be capable of if left unchecked? Any anxieties about perpetually existing on the cusp of an apocalyptic German bombing run? How easy is it to find new things to do and see when you’ve cycled through the same day billions of times? Any reservations about staying at a fixed age inside a bubble while time passes outside of it? Even Peter Pan (another story this one references) made it clear that Neverland was a nice place to visit, but it would be torture to live there. There’s no character beats to play here with any of them, and it’s tough to really care about them.
No, the only conflict in Miss Peregrine’s world (aside from Enoch, who is a jerk for reasons that are unexplained) comes from the outside: Samuel L. Jackson plays a dapper villain named Barron, who leads an army of monstrous wights—they enjoy raiding time bubbles set up by peculiar folks all over the world and eating their eyeballs for sustenance. There’s a tonal disconnect upon their entrance into the story, since the wights are dark creatures, and at one point we even see a whole pile of plucked eyeballs before they get gobbled up. The movie uncomfortably shifts—sometimes in the same scene—between the overly precious and the horrific (you can imagine Neil Gaiman navigating this terrain and having better luck with it). Also…it must be said: Burton’s ability to put foot in mouth regarding diversity in his movies aside, the role of the villainous, murderous invader going to the sole person of color in the movie is problematic, to say the least.
What follows isn’t exactly a titanic battle between good and evil. It’s more like a special effects showcase where characters stop just to explain what rules of this universe are being followed (or broken, or re-established) now. The movie is pretty much all setup, even when it’s winding down. That’s either because they’re banking on a second or third installment to actually make us care about these flat personalities, or because Burton, now so entrenched in his mannered, artificial worlds, is so far removed from the concerns of human behavior that actual performances and characterizations don’t really interest him anymore. That’s unfortunate, because Burton remains a skilled stylist (and his collaborators, like production designer Gavin Bocquet, remain top-notch). It’s just that, without real-feeling people to populate his worlds, or an urgent story worth caring about, he might as well be lost in a time bubble all of his own.