Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
2 out of 5 stars
Rated PG-13. Directed by Tim Burton.
Starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd.
Opens Sept. 30.
Deep into the third act of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a gang of giant, lanky, faceless tentacle-mouthed monsters face off in a spectacular battle against an army of sword-wielding reanimated skeletons on a snow-covered carnival pier that juts out over the Irish Sea. For that moment — if only for that moment – one is reacquainted with the unique directorial voice of Tim Burton, the man who once upon a time gave us the morbid dayglow fantasies of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare before Christmas.
Coming off lackluster efforts like 2012's Dark Shadows and 2014's Big Eyes, Burton has been sorely in need of some fresh material to kick-start his artistic muse. On paper, Miss Peregrine's, adapted from the popular young adult series by Ransom Riggs, actually seemed like it might make a good candidate for precisely that. Riggs built his series around his own personal collection of Victorian-era trick photography, constructing backstories for the creepy images of a floating girl, an invisible boy and clown-faced twins.
Alas, the mythology in which these characters are embedded is so dense and convoluted that it's just about impossible to describe without disappearing up one's own butt. We join teenaged Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield) in Florida (the Gandy Bridge makes an early cameo), where he grew up hearing his grandfather Abe's (Terence Stamp) fantastical tales from the old country about monsters and a school for children with special abilities. One night, Jake finds his grandfather dying in the woods behind his home, his eyes torn out; he gives the young man a cryptic message involving birds and loops and islands and time travel and, oh yeah, there's also one of those big honking tentacle-mouthed monsters lurking in the background. As Jake, with his father in tow (the usually delightful Irish comic actor Chris O'Dowd, who is utterly wasted here, while also affecting a remarkably unconvincing American accent) follows the clues to a remote village in Wales, we begin to piece together this backstory. It turns out the big monster-looking guys (though, to most, they are actually invisible) are "hollowgasts." They survive by draining the souls of children with special abilities, the titular "peculiars." Some hollowgasts, the especially well-fed ones (did I mention there are copious scenes of eyeball consumption? Consider yourself forewarned), are relatively humanoid-looking, shapeshifting creatures known as "wights" and are led by the diabolical Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson in a fright wig and white-tinted contacts).
There also are some extra special peculiars known as "ymbrynes," who can turn into birds and also (this is where it gets complicated) have the power to create "time loops." These allow the peculiars to live the same day over and over again, in sort of a Groundhog Day situation. The peculiars can venture out of the loops into other points in space and time, sort of, though not very far or for very long. The wights and the hollowgasts — all of whom used to be "regular" peculiars before something happened that made them go bad — are constantly on the hunt for the location of these loops, where all the tasty eye-feasting can be done.
Got all that? Fear not, a good 70 percent of the film's dialogue is devoted to exposition, so you'll have plenty of chances to catch up. In those few moments when characters aren’t busy filling each other in on what the hell is going on, plot happens. Over in Wales, Jake discovers a loop, which brings him back to 1940, to the very school that was the subject of all his grandfather's bedtime stories. There he meets Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), an ymbryne and the school's headmaster, as well as her various peculiar charges, including a dour Scottish necromancer (Finlay MacMillan) and Emma the floating girl (Ella Purnell), here playing the role of the prototypical Burton fair-skinned, big-eyed goth beauty. She also happens to be grandpa's ex-girlfriend, so naturally, she and Jake immediately fall for each other (so much eww).
This being a YA title, we know from the get-go that Jake — like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen or Percy Jackson or Beatrice Prior or, hell, Luke Skywalker — will have to fulfill his destiny to save the peculiars and defeat Mr. Barron and his wights. Unfortunately, Butterfield — previously best-known for starring in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — is a decidedly dull screen presence who shrinks from the hero role. At the other end of the spectrum are Jackson, hamming it up with brio, and Green, giving the kind of deeply-weird-to-the-point-of-camp performance that used to fall to Burton's ex, Helena Bonham Carter.
It also probably doesn't help that, for just the third time in his career (Ed Wood and — obviously — Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd were the other two), Burton is without the services of composer Danny Elfman. Where Elfman normally is able to inject even Burton's weakest efforts with a prevailing aura of twisted whimsy, the more conventional work here by music supervisors Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham lends Miss Peregrine's an earnestness that feels at odds with its director's madcap sensibilities.
Despite the occasional flashes of inspiration, for those hoping that Tim Burton might actually return to doing something truly peculiar, the wait continues.