By: 3-Deep (Three Beers) –
If you ever wondered what Tim Burton would do with the Harry Potter franchise, the X-Men series, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children should serve as your best indication. Based on Ransom Riggs’ YA novel of the same name, it bears as many similarities to those popular movies as it does to the rest of Burton’s distinctive filmography. Plucking elements from Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and, unfortunately, Dark Shadows, amongst others, it is undoubtably from the filmmaker’s hand, for better and worse. This time; however, it’s more for the better. While far from perfect, this newest effort is Burton’s most inspired and lively work since 2012’s underrated Frankenweenie. Take that for what it’s worth. I’m not going to proclaim it’s a masterpiece, but as an unashamed fan of Burton’s familiar kookiness, it’s great to see him in his element again. It might be a flicker more than a flame, but he’s enthused by his work again. It’s been a while since I’ve said that.
The film centers around Jake (Asa Butterfield), an sociall outcast 17-year-old boy from Florida with some severe daddy issues. Surprise surprise, right? It’s the typical Burton outcast, I’m well aware, but Butterfield can play a detached loner well. Maybe a bit too well, but I’ll get into that later. The only person who understands him is his sympathetic grandfather, Abraham Portman (Terence Stamp), who once filled with head with stories of other peculiar children living in seclusion in Wales under the care of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). Of course, his realist dad Franklin (Chris O’Dowd) tells him otherwise, making him suck up to the harsh reality we live in, and Jake therefore lives his life believing his grandfather is merely a kind-hearted kook. But when Jake gets a distressing call from Abraham one day, the boy rushes over to his nearby house to realize that maybe the man wasn’t wrong all these years after all.
Upon finding his ramshackle house, Jake discovers Abraham’s body in the forest with his eyes removed. Just before he passes away, however, Abraham once again insists his grandson search for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, for only there will he find the answers to his questions. His parents are unconvinced at first, but when Jake’s therapist (Allison Janney, once again underused) suggests it might be therapeutic, Jake and Franklin venture their way to a secluded Wales island to help come to terms with Abraham’s tragic passing. Franklin believes Jake will discover nothing and want to go home convinced that Abraham’s death was just a freak accident. That’s not what happens, though.
Instead, what Jakes discovers is that Miss Peregrine does, indeed, exist, along with her peculiar children, and that they live in a time loop — established by the mystical Miss Peregrine herself — in order to live out the same 1940 day for the rest of their unusual existence. Like his grandfather before him, it doesn’t take Jake long before he’s taken by the misfit family, but he doesn’t have as much time to appreciate their company before the villainous, peculiar Barron (Samuel L. Jackson, basically playing the more sinister version of his snow cone-haired Jumper character) sets out to kill and de-eyeball Jake, Miss Peregrine, and all the other peculiar children. Peculiar!
I’m a sucker for Tim Burton. I admitted as much before, but I feel it’s important to make that clear. Like Steven Spielberg, he’s among the first directors I recognized as a filmmaker, not merely a director. He helped me understand the term “auteur” from a young age. His style can become formulaic and self-parodying, especially in these later years, but when he’s inspired, it’s a magical thing. While Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t his best effort by any stretch of the imagination, it’s indicative of his style without resorting to embarrassing new lows, like Alice in Wonderland and the aforementioned Dark Shadows. It’s traditional Burton, but it’s at least exuberant and fun to watch. If Ed Wood is A-grade Burton and Alice in Wonderland is D-grade Burton, this one rests comfortably a low B, maybe high C. It might possibly only appeal to those who enjoy his off-kilter style, but those who do will find a lot to like.
The real key to Miss Peregrine’s success is, expectedly, Miss Peregrine herself. Green is simply marvelous in the lead role, embodying eccentricity with aplomb but never letting the weirdness get ahead of her. As wickedly entertaining and layered with mystique and, of course, peculiarity, it’s a particularly masterful turn from Green, and it proves once again just how wasted she ended up in the otherwise unwatchable Dark Shadows. Have I made it clear that I didn’t like Dark Shadows yet? Because I didn’t like it. But in any case, this titular protagonist is exactly what Burton’s Willy Wonka should have been, opposed to whatever the hell Johnny Depp did in that 2005 film. (Side note: I don’t completely hate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that’s a conversation for a different review). It’s charming, wild, sympathetic, toothy, weird, and wonderful, all at once. It’s an absolute delight to watch, and if they do make a sequel to this one, I’ll be there just to watch Green work her magic again. It’s a positively radiant performance.
If only Butterfield was just as interesting to watch. The young actor isn’t necessarily bad per se. He does what’s expected of him, yet it’s often flat and charmless. Like I said before, the character is supposed to be monotone and emotionally distant in some respects, but it’s hard for Butterfield to capture any charisma with such a drab role, and with so much time devoted to him, he often drags Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children to a halt, especially when following Green’s remarkable performance. Thankfully, there are enough striking visuals and plot intrigue to keep our interest throughout, but it wouldn’t been more interesting if they got someone with just a little more personality. Butterfield can often be a wet blanket surrounded by candy-colored decadence. It holds everything back, in many respects. But he’s not the only thing wrong with Burton’s newest film.
In general, pacing is an issue for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Whether because it’s too faithful to the book or Burton spends too much time establishing Jake and his parental figures, the movie has a tendency to drag quite often. It’s perhaps too committed to making Jake’s life seem so bland and ordinary before opening the door to the other world. It’s already a bit too long at 127 minutes, and the structural problems make it feel longer as a result. It’s a shame, because like I said, when the movie is in its element, particular inside Miss Peregrine’s home, it is everything you want a Burton film to be. It’s freely strange and filled with great production designs, unique camera angles, absurd characters at every turn, and some nice practical effects. It has a momentum problem, but when it’s cooking, it’s deliciously entertaining. Perhaps that’s what ultimately makes the rest seem kinda sour at times.
Once the film reaches its third act, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children starts to lose track of itself and throws a lot of its established rules out the window. It does try to justify some of its decisions, but overall it feels like every other YA fantasy adaptation we’ve seen throughout the new millennium. Jackson is having a ball working with Burton for the first time, but that’s not enough to bring the movie back to speed again. It never quite recovers after a point, and it ends on a saggy, half-hearted note which suggests they might work their way towards another film franchise. I’m not sure if that’s going to happen, though, and thus we might have yet another YA adaptation without a real fulfilling conclusion. Sigh.
Despite all its faults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the most enjoyable Burton movie in a long time. Like Mars Attacks, it’s not great, or maybe even good, but it unmistakably carries the singular filmmaker’s touch. And when he’s in his zone, Burton relishes the opportunities made available by Riggs’ material, which is adapted to the screen by Jane Goldman (Stardust, X-Men: First Class). Heavily influenced by the likes of The Addams Family and Peter Pan, it’s another frantic, creepy, and bizarre film in Burton’s filmography. And this time, it works. Stay peculiar, Mr. Burton. That’s what serves you best.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every Tim Burton cliche and familiar trope.
Take a Drink: whenever anything strange happens. Play this one responsibly.
Take a Drink: anytime someone says ‘peculiar’. Again, play this one responsibly.
Take a Drink: every time there’s a bird on the screen.
Do a Shot: whenever Judi Dench makes an appearance.
Take a Drink: every time Samuel L. Jackson does something crazy pants.
Do a Shot: for the production design team. They earned it.