When we first meet Jake, the hero of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, we immediately recognize his importance of the film. As played by Asa Butterfield, Jake is a quiet, isolated and inquisitive young man whose closest relationship is with his grandfather (played by Terence Stamp). Jake is lonely, skinny, pale, soft spoken, usually attired in black… and clearly the stand in for film director Tim Burton, as he resembles and even sounds like Burton. Well, if Woody Allen has a stand in for each of his films, then why not Burton?
Jake ponders whether his grandfather’s tall tales, involving a school for “peculiar” children, are true or imagined. Along with his father (played by Chris O’Dowd), Jake travels to Wales and discovers that, in a most unusual manner, both Miss Peregrine (played by Eva Green) and her monstrous but lovable pupils, do exist.
All the elements are in place for a classic Burton film but the tone is off from the start. Based on the popular Young Adult novel by Ransom Riggs, the story feels cobbled together from different franchises and never establishes a consistent feel. On a superficial level, it plays like Harry Potter crossed with X-Men, as Jake discovers his true, supernatural potential through education, while immersing himself in a society of misfit children with freakish abilities. While set in the present, the early scenes of Jake’s life try to tap into another Burton trademark: an exaggerated vision of suburban life. Yet, the humor is too reigned in and none of the characters connect.
Butterfield, who also starred in Hugo and Ender’s Game, is becoming the go-to lead for YA Novel adaptations. Unfortunately, he’s one of the weak links here. It’s either the bland way Butterfield plays him, screenwriter Jane Goldman’s limited characterization or both–Jake is just not very interesting.
By contrast, Green is excellent in a stylish turn. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Miss Peregrine, who Green makes a transfixing figure. Samuel L. Jackson is visibly enjoying the opportunity to play a truly scary villain and looks more comfortable and loose on screen than he has in years. Stamp’s role and performance offer the most layers but O’Dowd, Allison Janney and especially Dame Judi Dench are wasted.
I was excited to see Rupert Everett, a fine actor rarely does films anymore. Despite prominent billing, Everett is barely in the film and leaves no impression.
Of the spooky kids under Miss Peregrine’s watch, I was especially taken by Ella Purnell’s lovely portrait of a young woman who, unless weighed down, would float away like a balloon. There’s also the adorable little girl with a ghastly pair of teeth on the back of her head (it’s the film’s best visual gag).
The third act is a spectacle-heavy extravaganza, as Burton clearly has fun tossing in elaborate, Ray Harryhausen-style effects and action into the narrative. Film nerds will even notice how the faces of the central villains, the Hollows, resemble a famously cut, “too-scary” ghoul from the 1981 Ghost Story. The carnival setting and giant creature tussles are lively and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of Burton on a ride. Oddly enough, this entire portion of the movie doesn’t work. By this point in the story, the humanity of the film has been lost, which wasn’t the case with other Burton masterpieces like Edward Scissorhands or Frankenweenie.
As with many dark, intense YA Novel adaptations, this will all be too much for children. The PG-13 rating is too soft for a film with many scenes of Jackson and his evil cronies hungrily devouring eyeballs.
The special effects are fine but the point of it all gets muddy near the end. Early on, the film explores how fantastic tales and fantasy can be a way of escaping or covering up a darker truth. By the end, that’s all been tossed aside for yet another cloud of CGI busyness.
Photo: Jay Maidment