Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children works best when it serves as a vehicle for Tim Burton’s imagination, exploring a world where tall tales seem to be real and monsters manifest themselves literally, where trauma and loss are explained through escape into fantasy, and where shadows distort and bend into uncanny shapes as if to suggest that there is so much more to this world than it might first appear. This is all stock Burton imagery, but the director approaches it with an endearing energy.
Unfortunately, there is more to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The film is not content to play as broad Burton fantasy of childhood mythmaking and coming of age. Despite an opening act that hints at something of a young adult follow-up to Big Fish, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children inevitably gets bogged down in the finer trappings of its young adult source material. Exposition is ladled on, rival orders are established, sequels are set up, familiar plot beats are not so much hit as hammered.
In its opening twenty minutes or so, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children shows a lot of promise. Jake is teenager growing in Florida, when his grandfather dies under semi-mysterious circumstances. Jake thinks he sees a grotesque monster at the scene, but his psychiatrist helpfully explains that such imagery is just a way for the mind to process trauma. It is a fantasy, constructed to help Jake deal with the senseless loss of an elderly relative who was suffering with dementia.
In these early scenes, Burton offers an endearing glimpse of Jake’s childhood. His father is a nature writer, planning a book about the birds of the world. His mundane interests reflect a mundane man, somebody with no real interest in his son’s life. Instead, Jake gravitates to his grandfather. His grandfather fled Poland before the Second World War, apparently because he began seeing “monsters.” As he enchants Jake with stories of globe-trotting adventures, it becomes clear that Jake’s grandfather is also treating the fantastic as a refuge from a cruel and mundane world.
These are easily the best sequences in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the ones most firmly anchored in Burton’s aesthetic. The casting helps a great deal. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has a spectacular cast of actors who are largely neglected or ignored; Alison Janney as a psychiatrist, Chris O’Dowd as Jake’s father, Kim Dickens as Jake’s mother, Rupert Everett as a rival ornithologist. The only member of the main cast who actually makes a solid impression is Terrance Stamp as Jake’s elderly uncle.
In a better world, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children would focus on Terrence Stamp as a survivor of the Second World War who needs to believe in the fantastic to give his life a sense of meaning. Stamp plays the elderly man as a tragic figure, one who clearly believes that his grandson is meant for brilliant things but is instead destined to suffocated by the drab everyday world around him. There is a wistfulness to the performance and character that suggests that Burton would empathise; the old man feels like the window to the story.
Sadly, the character is cast aside far too quickly so that Jake might be motivated to action. With the death of his grandfather, Jake sets off on a mission to investigate one of his grandfather’s tall tales, the secret society living on a dreary island off the Welsh Coast. From this point onwards, everything becomes a bit more conventional, as Burton is essentially tasked with constructing a version of the X-Men that hinges more on magic than atomic era anxieties. The parallels speak for themselves; the special school, the mutant children, even the girl who can kill with a touch.
There are a number of interesting visuals to be found in the remaining two acts of the film. There is something quite endearing about Jake’s encounter with two would-be rappers on a remote Welsh island, and some of the children are suitably creepy. A set of twins dress in homage to The Orphanage, while another makes rejects from Toy Story fight for his own amusement. However, there is not enough wonder to sustain the film, and not nearly enough to drown out the more paint-by-numbers aspects of the plot.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children quickly degenerates into a mess of young adult clichés. Jake inevitably becomes a leader of this community when it is thrown into crisis. There is a heavy (and frankly unnecessary) emphasis on “time loops.” There is a villain with an over-elaborate (and over-explained) motivation for doing very basic things. The film compensates for its predictability with knowing irony, but that only serves to deflate the sense of wonder that should be driving the plot.
It feels very much like Burton is disinterested in this aspect of the film, and even the presence of a zippy high-energy Eva Green cannot elicit much energy. In fact, the most unsettling aspects of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children lie unexamined, with Jake stumbling upon a secret society that conspires to keep teenagers young forever and trap them living “the perfect day” over and over again. This sounds very much like a nightmare, more like the world against which Burton rebelled in Edward Scissorhands than the wondrous world promised.
Indeed, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children often feels like a half-hearted riff on superhero franchises, populated by sets of dysfunctional characters with magical abilities that clash against opponents with rival powers at the climax. If that is the case, the idea of trapping these teenagers in a particular moment could be read as clever criticism of the way that comic book narratives trap characters like Spider-Man or the X-Men in a state of perpetual young adulthood without the option to move along.
However, Burton has already delivered his version of a superhero blockbuster, and seems to have no interest in revisiting the genre any time soon. The result is a film that instantly looses any sense of momentum once it decides that its version of wonder and adventure looks suspiciously like another massive motion picture franchise. Ironically for a film featuring a heroine who can generate incredible amounts of oxygen, it looks like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children just sucks the air out of Tim Burton’s sales.