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A Tim Burton film has, for better or worse, become just that, a ‘Tim Burton’ film, and as such feels obligated to be quirky and inventive, somewhat childish and as the years have passed, less of all of these. Few directors have stuck to so stringent a narrative and visual style as Burton, and there can be no denying the box office successes of these fantasies, but there is a weighted familiarity to them that makes those who grew up on his films less appealing. With Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, there is the signature Burton style, but it is clearly designed for a specific audience and doesn’t quite capture the lure and wonder of what the title promises, despite some strong moments.
It starts as so many in the genre do with a painfully awkward gangly teenage person, in this case a boy named Jake (Asa Butterfield), who literally begins the story trying to impress a pretty girl is who ignores him and has her boyfriend ridicule him. They then dutifully disappear having served their purpose and we learn that Jake is a dreamer, wanting to be an explorer. He lives in a Florida suburb and admires his grandfather (Terrance Stamp) who supports the young boy’s aspirations, unlike Jake’s father (Chris O’Dowd), who belittles his boy’s hopes.
Grandpa spins tales of his flight from monsters in Poland as a child, escaping to Wales where he attended a remarkable school for children with special powers (The obvious connections to World War II are here and addressed). But when grandpa dies under curious circumstances, Jake’s father and mother (Kim Dickens), along with the boy’s grief counselor (Alison Janney), allow him to travel to Wales to learn more about this so-called school and bring closure to his curiosity.
Once there, Jake is quickly abandoned by his father who would rather spend time in the pubs with the colorful locals, letting a few young boys on the island give Jake a tour of the place. When they too trick Jake and leave him on his own, he soon comes across the fabled school and finds it is disrepair, seemingly bombed out from the war. Naturally though, as soon as he passes through the front door, the place springs to brilliant life, and he is met with a cast of interesting and well, peculiar children who relive the same day over and over, the last day before the bombs, all thanks to the headmistress Miss Peregrine, who sets the clock back 24 hours every day.
Directed by Burton and adapted from the book of the same name by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is not without is charms, most found in the visual delights of the settings and the captivating performance by Eva Green, who is a wonderfully-realized character, despite obvious shades of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp layered all about her. With her elegant costumes and the wild blue hair (and her pipe puffing), she is a bit of everything the film needs: beauty, curiosity, menace, and wonder.
But all of the build up is sort of let down by the fundamentals of the plot, which follows the same old storyline of so many superhero movies and children’s tales. While these kids are the ‘good guys’ per se, they face off against a legion of baddies, led by the hopelessly typecast Samuel L. Jackson playing Mr. Barron. As good an actor as Jackson is, the villain role for him, with his big over-the-top presence, has lost all its steam even if he his fun to watch. The movie is rich with subtext but it’s not explored enough or revealed enough for the intended audience to make the connection. There are strong performance throughout though the dialogue is simplistic. There are some disturbing moments of course, with the yanking out of eyeballs an integral part of the story (metaphor-heavy but again, surely lost on the target viewer) but overall its okay for younger audiences.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appeal to many and has a lot going for it but feels a bit empty when it’s all over. Another solid entry from Burton, it just feels less wondrous than it should.
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Ransom Riggs (based upon the novel written by), Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Stars: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson