There was a time, let’s call it the 1990s, when Tim Burton was one of the most exciting filmmakers in la-la land. The goth kid with a sense of humor managed to create films with an uncanny balance between his personal obsessions and mass entertainment. He was wildly imaginative and seesawed between developing his own modern Grimm fairy tales and lending his unique aesthetic to popular properties. Then at some point Burton seemed to give up on pursuing his voice. He now essentially just picks a popular book, play, or TV show, slathers on light dustings of his famous aesthetic, and lets the story take care of itself. The guy was never a master storyteller, but at least he used to care enough about design, casting, and tone to create worlds worth getting lost in. Now it feels like he’s just in it for the paycheck and the pleasures of the blockbuster making process. Miss Peregrin’s Home For Peculiar Children feels more like it was made by a talented Tim Burton rip off artist than the real thing.
Based on a popular series of YA novels (Sigh…isn’t everything?), the movie is like some sort of mash up between Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, and gothic horror. It follows a disaffected teen boy (Asa Butterfield) who goes to visit his kooky old grandpa (Terence Stamp) and discovers him being attacked by a slenderman-esque creature who eats out his eyes. That’s Butterfield’s introduction to a secret world of magic that leads him to an island in Britain featuring the titular home for peculiar children. Peculiars are essentially kiddie X-men mutants with more gothic powers (ie secret monster mouths, the ability to bring creepy dolls to life, etc.). They are watched over by Mary Poppins type figures who keep them young by living in a time loop that plays the same day over and over. This particular house is stuck in the 40s and run by a delightfully eccentric Eva Green. Unfortunately there’s a dark side to this world involving eyeball eating monsters led by Samuel L. Jackson. So trouble is afoot.
That all sounds like ideal Tim Burton material, doesn’t it? The type of thing that he could bring to life through an explosion of creepy cartoon imagery and eccentric characters, right? Sadly, the director never seems completely committed to the material. He stirs up some wonderful visuals during the world-building portion, but it all feels oddly subdued to suit a more family friendly style (well, except for Sam Jackson and the monsters. That’s vintage Burton stuff, but hardly the focus). It certainly doesn’t help that the script by the usually solid Jane Goldman feels structureless and overstuffed with events. Clearly the filmmakers didn’t want to lose anything from the book and as a result it feels like a rush of plot and circumstance that never gets enough time to develop. This should be the type of movie where viewers are invited into a strange world and given the opportunity to get lost in it. Instead, it’s a flurry of stuff happening with no time left to admire the surroundings. What a pity.
There are some high points though. Burton indulges in a little stop motion animation to impressive effect and tosses in some nice morbid humor. Eva Green is fantastic as always as a stern headmistress with a heart of gold and a knack for crossbow monster hunting. Ever since Casino Royale, she’s made a career out of being the best part of mediocre projects and this is her latest. Hopefully she’ll get something worthy of her considerable talents some day. Sam Jackson also clearly has a blast playing a monster and is quite good at it in his limited screentime. Sadly that’s it for memorable performances, with everyone else (like Judi Dench and Chris O’Dowd) either wasted in tiny roles that amount to nothing or a young actor who doesn’t get enough screentime to develop a proper character. It’s a shame the kids aren’t more memorable, since they are theoretically supposed to be the stars of a new franchise. But nope, they are all pretty bland and boring and have little to do other than look young and/or creepy.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children should have been a bunt for Tim Burton. It’s a story custom designed for his skills that he could pull off in his sleep. Sadly, it seems like the director just stayed asleep and let this one take care of itself. This is Burton on autopilot and that’s a depressingly common sight these days. Hopefully the filmmaker will find something to spark his imagination again soon. He’s made a few decent flicks in recent years when he’s actually been committed to the material (Sweeney Todd, Frankenweenie, and Big Eyes were all quite good). Unfortunately, most of his movies are for hire now, with Hollywood ether unwilling to fund the guy’s passion project or the filmmaker merely disinterested in actually finding material worth getting passionate about. Ultimately, this one is for Burton apologists only, a dwindling crowd that may well disappear soon if this guy doesn’t get his act together.