RELEASE DATE: September 30, 2016
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
MPAA RATING: PG-13
RUN TIME: 127 minutes
Here is a movie that feels like it is gasping for breath, telling its story in fits and starts. It runs up behind you and throws in another element, building up the plot at a frustratingly inconsistent speed. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is seemingly rather confused – it actively imagines and explores its canon, but it fails to sufficiently explain and utilize each aspect.
This film is based on a novel written by Ransom Riggs. The book utilizes a plethora of old, doctored photographs to accompany a complicated fantasy setting, breathing a vivid existence into the impossibilities written on the page. This unique concept makes for a fascinating read, and it also ensures that a fairly cinematic adventure plays out in the one’s mind. The Victorian sideshow descriptors and keen gothic horrors all but guarantee that many readers have already thought of Tim Burton as an ideal director for the material. However, while he can certainly paint the picture, he has a fair deal more trouble realizing the other stuff.
The “other stuff,” which I suppose would be better referred to as a plot, revolves around Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a teenager from Florida – who, after following a cryptic clue left by his dying grandfather, Abraham (Terence Stamp), finds himself on a quest for answers.
Eventually, he follows the breadcrumb trail to a small Welsh village (it’s a long story), whose rocky cliffs and marshy forests hold the decaying remnants of an old orphanage, destroyed after the Nazis bombed it in 1943. But there’s a more complex secret underneath the wreckage, and Jake discovers what it is after navigating the ruins and inadvertently traveling back in time, to the day of the building’s destruction.
It turns out that the house is indeed a children’s home, but all of its residents possess a magical ability of some kind, like harnessing the elements or turning invisible or defying gravity. They’re called peculiars, overseen by the maternal Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Every evening, right before the building’s destruction, they are zapped back in time 24 hours. They have lived in that infinite loop for 73 years.
This world is certainly fascinating, but it is also fraught with threats from within and without. But Jake soon learns that he possesses a peculiarity of his own, and its usage could prove vital to the survival of this magical universe and the children who inhabit it.
Like most stories, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children can be roughly divided into three acts, representing a beginning, middle and end. But the structure of this story feels immensely lopsided. Act 1 feels very short, and a number of scenes jarringly cut away with little rhythm or structure. Act 2 feels a bit more full-bodied and moves fairly efficiently as it introduces us into a fantasy realm. Yet Act 3 feels disproportionately long, encompassing a never-ending finale that seems to suffer from an overstuffed laundry list of things to include with a painstaking “and then… and then… and then…” feeling, which ultimately proves rather taxing.
Burton has walked a curious tightrope throughout his career when making such films as this. His contributions to the fantasy genre have searched for that elusive sweet spot between being sufficiently offbeat and being distracting. It is questionable as to whether or not Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children meets that ideal.
Yes, it looks phenomenal, with symmetrical, creative artistry and with villainous creatures that are displayed with long, limber extremities. Each set piece is dramatically thought out, from the gloomy community in Wales to a mammoth, sunken ocean liner, but the film dawdles in exposition and cutesy visual notations, as opposed to simply allowing each image to speak for itself.
It’s disappointing to see Tim Burton have his skills and experience put forth for a project in desperate need of a rewrite. It’s disappointing to see Asa Butterfield, a talented actor who is making a successful transition from child performer to adult performer, be given a character with so little to do besides being a blank slate upon whom everything has to be bounced. Disliking this movie brings me no joy.
You could, of course, tell me to focus exclusively on the wonderful imagery of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I would entertain the notion quite seriously. There’s a great scene that sees dozens of skeletons reanimating and becoming a makeshift militia, and there’s another one I liked in which Emma (Ella Purnell), the peculiar who can float high in the air, takes off in the backyard of the orphanage and flies to the top of a tree. But these are what they are: individual moments. Sadly, a movie is collection of hundreds and hundreds of moments, and this movie does not organize them very well.