The good news is that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has roused Tim Burton to do some of his best work in a long, long while. But he’s coming off decades of stuff like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, so let’s not all do handsprings just yet.
It’s easy to see why Burton fans have been chomping at the bit over the director’s 18th feature film, an adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ wonderfully weird and creepy 2011 illustrated novel. Hopes for something on the level of Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice have had diehards visualizing the dark, whimsical craft that Burton might bring to the material—the story of a 16-year-old boy’s visit to the island home of an orphanage populated by kids with magical powers.
Soulful-eyed Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) plays the movie’s Jake (not the more somber and faintly ethnic Jacob, as he’s called in the book), a moony loner stranded in Florida with his mismatched, workaday parents who fear he’s not quite right in the head (an oddly cast Chris O’Dowd and a barely there Kim Dickens). Jake’s lifeline is his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp, a curious fit) who gifts him with inspiring first-edition books, secret maps and diaries and shares tales of World War II, when he escaped from Poland and lived on that island of unique children, with its birdlike woman who protects them from unimaginable monsters. When Abraham’s violent and mysterious death throws Jake into a tailspin, a robot-like psychologist (Allison Janney) endorses a plan to let the boy process his emotions and “say goodbye” by traveling with his father to the remote Welsh island his grandfather described.
There, while his boozy dad supposedly works on some half-hearted book idea, Jake discovers the joys and pains of time loops, encounters a darker, odder Mary Poppins in Miss Peregrine (the charismatically campy Eva Green for the win, as usual) and the paranormally gifted “peculiars,“ including a lovely, weightless young woman named Emma (Ella Purnell, whom Burton should have chosen to play Alice), young Claire (Raffiella Chapman) who sports a saber-toothed mouth at the back of her neck, ghostly mute telepathic twins (Thomas and Joseph Odwell) and little Hugh (Milo Parker) who controls bees. If the home and its residents recall the wondrous kids of Harry Potter’s alma mater Hogwarts or the freaks and prodigies of the Xavier Institute, it’s hardly unintentional—but by no means fatal.
Crowding in on Miss Peregrine and her brood are nightmarish creatures called wights and hollowgasts, presided over by the villainous Barron, played–to the third balcony–by Samuel L. Jackson in a frightwig and whited-out eyes. What a drag is to report that the arrival of Jackson’s character slides the movie into a generic mess of CGI and indifferently shot action sequences. For at least an hour, the movie percolates along with a sense of atmosphere, menace and quirk, typified by a couple of memorable sequences—particularly a tabletop fight by a nightmarish pair of dolls invented by Enoch, a brooding, haughty peculiar who possesses the power to reanimate dead things. The young actor Finlay MacMillan plays him with such pouty adolescent petulance that you can almost imagine him growing up to be a Dr. Pretorius type in The Bride of Frankenstein. Besides, the character is a lot more interesting than Jake’s, and the doll battle sequence, done via wonderful stop-motion animation, is Burton in his element.
The movie’s last act feels like it could have been directed by anyone and turns the main characters into a bunch of ordinary figures running from one CGI menace to another. Burton miscalculates a potential showstopper sequence set at a pier amusement park–an attack on the kids by a skeleton army straight out of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The action gets choppy, frantic and chaotic—and that music? A total buzzkill, like something out of Spielberg’s Hook.
Fans of the books may miss specific characters, the melancholy tone and certain undercurrents–like the persecution of the peculiars and its parallels with Nazism–but, in general, Burton’s take, based on a screenplay by Jane Goldman (X-Men: Days of Future Past), is more family friendly and, yep, corporate.
OK, so Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children comes nowhere near the inspirationally bizarre level of Frankenweenie or The Nightmare Before Christmas. At least Burton seems more in tune with the material than the director has in years. And when things get dull, there’s Eva Green making it all worthwhile. When she’s off screen, you’re on your own.