Though people seem to generally associate Tim Burton with a very narrow idea of stylistic and/or thematic efforts, it is becoming less meaningful as time goes on. With Big Eyes, Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd, Burton may have a certain penchant for letting visuals take over, but he isn’t in the pigeonhole of what leaps to mind when you hear his name. Big Eyes, in fact, is downright “normal.”
But, when Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children comes along with Tim Burton in the chair, it’s difficult to avoid certain expectations.
Those expectations are met well through the first half of the film, but somewhere around the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson as Barron, the villain in our adventure, the movie goes mostly cartoony, and the fun fizzles out.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) finds himself caught up in his grandfather’s (Terence Stamp) surreal stories, and things unfortunately come to a head when his grandfather is killed. At the advice of the therapist he’s been seeing, following the trauma of finding his grandfather’s body, Jake travels to a mysterious home for “orphans” on a remote island. There he finds that his grandfather’s stories have all been true, and there are some peculiar children living in hiding under the watchful eye of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green).
We are quickly introduced to the bizarre world of peculiar children, which is never quite explained and only mildly makes sense, by Jake’s introduction to Emma (Ella Purnell). Emma has a strange affinity for air, making her unable to keep herself from floating away without her lead boots. The home is also inhabited by an invisible boy, a young man who is something of a necromancer, a girl who can make plants grow with super speed, and a boy who can project his dreams for all to see… among several others.
Miss Peregrine keeps the kids safe in a time loop made possible by her own peculiarity, and these kids have been living here, reliving the same 24 hours, for some 70 years.
We walk the grounds of this quirky, magical world seeing Burton at his best. Immersing us in something completely fantastic, that we nevertheless never doubt. He practically has you buying a ticket to the place. The details pull you into the fun, and Burton’s ability to mesmerize with visual style, though perhaps surprisingly more subtle than much of his work, has possibly never been better. There are layers upon layers here, and the film lands us squarely within Jake’s point of view, taking us through it all as the outsider who can’t believe what’s happening.
Then we learn why we’re all here, and we start to slip away, much as it seems Burton’s interest in the project waned (assuming films were made in order, which they aren’t, but it’s still hard to shake the feeling). Barron, it turns out, is a peculiar himself, and he apparently fancied that he had a way to live forever by harnessing the power of peculiars like Miss Peregrine. Along with several of his cronies, Barron underwent an experiment, but it turned them all into monsters. Over time, Barron discovered that… well, we’ll just say “doing away with” other peculiars would gradually return him to normal. Thus, the peculiars now all hide out in these time loops, hoping not to be discovered by Barron and his monsters.
At this point, the film demands that you not think too much about how many peculiars there are, how many bad guys there are, or how the whole world created here could sensibly follow its own rules. To be fair, you probably have to allow a bit of leeway for a YA novel, but I’m not sure a Burton film ought to get the same kind of room to maneuver.
Once Barron enters the picture, with Jackson going completely cartoony in the role, the film bogs down, dragging out scenes almost like a movie that’s become bored with itself. The fun is largely gone, replaced with grandstanding and scenery chewing, and the adventure we expect turns out not to actually come to pass at all. It’s in the category of adventure by virtue of saying adventure a lot, and plot by the technical route of something happening, therefore there is a plot.
Worst of all, the book, while not the best YA novel ever, works its themes, offering a tale rich with things to think about and “thought lessons” the appropriate age group can hopefully absorb into their own worldview. It’s obviously a story about “being weird,” or, “different,” but more importantly it’s about appreciating and understanding yourself whether you’re peculiar or not. It also has a lot more interest in Jake, and the fact that he got a raw deal in the superpower department, and thus how a person does the best they can with what they have, and finds out how to be useful with whatever their gifts are.
The movie never approaches touching these ideas, and it’s far the worse for it. It’s simplicity and flash over substance, which is the opposite of what we’re used to from Burton, despite the fact that we connect him with a certain visual elegance.
For the right age group, this is still a lot of fun, and much of the film is done particularly well. Even the end scenes with raised ships, skeletons, and a haunting pull at your ability to reminisce is rather wonderful. Many may find it too little too late, but it’s worth watching the film just to get there.
Still, the appropriate age group is lessened by the film’s rating, which has to make you wonder who exactly it thinks it’s for, and the appeal and joyful wonder it builds in the first half are abandoned as it progresses.