"Miss Peregrine" Is Vintage Tim Burton - For Better Or Worse

The biggest surprise in Tim Burton’s latest is that title character Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) isn’t in much of her own film. The rest of her “Home For Peculiar Children” – adapted from Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young adult novel of the same name – plays like a Timothy Walter Burton greatest hits movie: a few moments of ethereal genius, some swings toward narrative ruin, and a whole lot of tedium. Although sporadically entertaining and far from his worst picture (take your pick between “Planet Of The Apes” and “Alice In Wonderland”), “Miss Peregrine” does little to dispel the notion that the filmmaker remains buried in his comfort zone, with still no signs of impending exhumation.

Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) stars as Jake Portman, a listless Florida teen whose world is turned upside with the mysterious death of his only confidant: his grandfather – and prolific storyteller – Abe (Terence Stamp). A devastated Jake convinces his dad Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to a small Welsh island, the setting of Abe’s most recurring yarn. Franklin sees the trip as an opportunity to grieve; Jake sees it as a chance to reunite with his grandfather – albeit a much younger incarnation.

Once across the pond, Jake locates an entryway to September 3, 1943: the date pinpointed by Abe in his final moments. What follows is part “X-Men” (Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters), part “Wizard Of Oz,” all nakedly familiar.

Neither Miss Peregrine nor her stable of odd young ones are given much in the way of characterization, all defined by their quirks. There’s an invisible boy, an aerokinetic teen named Emma (Ella Purnell), masked twin gorgons, and the headmistress herself, who can turn into a falcon and manipulate time. None are inherently compelling parts, not even compared to Jake who can’t pinpoint a peculiarity of his own.

What is compelling is the nature of the home’s existence. Miss Peregrine and her brood are knowingly stuck in a time loop, doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, with no choice but to purposefully rewind time at the same moment every evening. That moment comes with a Nazi bomb barreling towards them, Peregrine faithfully using her powers to reverse the bomb’s course and jump back in time by twenty-four hours.

It’s a stunning sequence, and there are few others to match (a thrilling, all-too-short stop-motion fight scene is another high point), but it’s obvious how much creative energy Burton sinks into them, leaving so little for the rest of the film.

Samuel L. Jackson’s villain, Mr. Barron, is outwardly a hoot, a spindly Slederman-like creature that must consume the eyeballs of children to maintain his human form. Yet, it takes nearly an hour to get the character meaningfully involved in the story, and even then his motivations are cloudy and Jackson’s performance is wildly out of step with the rest of the cast. By the time Barron and his horde of fellow Hollowgasts face down Jake and company, the plot has been lost and all that’s left are CGI creatures fighting to some horrendous house music.

But the movie’s biggest sin is how frequently it bolts from its own beating heart. The bond between Jake and Abe is the best thing in the film and the screenplay repeatedly runs away from it in favor of half-baked characters and occasionally stirring spectacle. The kitchen sink approach to act III only compounds the problem, functioning as a gigantic aside to what the picture is actually about: loss, grief, and finding peace in the arts.

Unfortunately, these problems are all vintage Tim Burton. His resistance to creative growth remains as frustrating as ever. At the same time, the disappointments of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” are deeply familiar, making them pretty easy to take. And the movie’s highlights are undeniable, sure to thrill the director’s still substantial fan base. But not as substantial as it could be.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: September 30, 2016
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Jane Goldman
Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril)