I’ve always loved Tim Burton, but while his first decade of feature direction was almost uniformly outstanding, his oeuvre has been distinctly uneven over the last twenty years or so. Unfortunately, one need look no further than Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for a perfect case-in-point. While Burton’s macabre aesthetic is preternaturally well-suited to his material here, this tween-lit adaptation fails to avoid the pernicious pitfalls of an overexploited genre. Miss Peregrine is full of interesting visual ideas, most of which are stunningly executed, but its by-the-numbers narrative never measures up to the director’s capacity for cinematic inventiveness.
I’m only passingly familiar with Ransom Riggs’ eponymous YA best-seller that provides the source material here, but if its plot is half as convoluted as what made it into the script there’s little mystery as to why the film feels overstuffed with expository asides. The narrative follows a mopey teen (Asa Butterfield) who, honoring venerable Grandpa Terence Stamp’s deathbed admonitions, seeks out a fabled Welsh orphanage where the children all possess distinctive supernatural abilities and never age. This last part is because they’ve been kept safe since the second World War as wards of the titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who can turn into a falcon at will. She can also stop time and repeat it endlessly, because I guess that’s a quality associated with falcons? It would seem that thinking too deeply on the plot mechanics is unlikely to garner any further clarity on this one. What’s important to the story is that all of these children, from the invisible boy to the girl with a mouth in the back of her head, are being hunted by some sort of faceless, eye-eating monsters led by Samuel L. Jackson, whose wig from Unbreakable seems to have greyed with age. Obviously, it’s up to our protagonist to save them.
While this inordinately predictable premise amounts to little more than rote franchise building and bears more than a passing similarity to more established intellectual properties like Harry Potter or the X-Men, what works here has nothing to do with what was on the page and everything to do with what wound up on screen. Burton’s distinctive directorial flourishes and spooky set pieces put this film in a different class than your standard YA cash grab, and I highly doubt anyone would ever mistake this as the work of another filmmaker. That said, even Burton can’t overcome the hollow characterization and byzantine backstory of the novel he’s adapting, and these are the drawbacks that preclude the possibility of Miss Peregrine becoming anything more than a footnote in the director’s filmography.
Burton completists might find enough visual reminders of Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands to keep them (mostly) engaged, but those in the market for a compelling narrative will have to look elsewhere. Even the most avid acolytes of the director are likely to find the visuals overly derivative of those earlier works, although his measured use of CG effects is some of his most effective to date. It seems a shame to waste a filmmaker of Burton’s caliber on movie as unexceptional as Miss Peregrine, but even auteurs have to pay the bills somehow – there’s nothing peculiar about that. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark, Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher, Epic of Hendersonville.