A peculiar mess: A critical review of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2016)

One always wonders what one’s heroes are up to, and I would be a liar if I did not admit that director Tim Burton is one of my heroes. In fact, and pardon the cliché, I imagine Burton is one of the forces that got me through high school. There was a point where his Batman movies where, in some way, related to at least two-thirds of my waking thoughts. Of course, Burton has always been a champion of the outsider–whether it’s Batman, Edward Scissorhands, or, hell, Beetlejuice and Jack Nicholson’s president in “Mars Attacks”–which probably explains why he was my teenage cinematic idol. The man understands those who stand outside the window looking enviously in, so it’s no wonder he was appointed director of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a celebration of the odd, if nothing else.

The film, based on Ransom Riggs’s novel, follows Jake (Asa Butterfield), a gawky Florida teen who discovers that the stories his recently deceased and curiously English grandfather (Terence Stamp) told about a weird mansion full of weirder children in Wales are true–or at least true enough that he received letters from the titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who you can probably guess runs the house. Jake and his father (Chris O’Dowd) travel to Wales, where–wouldn’t you know it–not only does Jake discover Miss Peregrine’s house, which has been caught in a time warp for 70 years, locking it in 1941 (hope you like Benny Goodman), but he learns that he’s the only child in the home who can see “hollows”: invisible monsters, led by the insidious, shape-shifting Mr. Barron (a fright wigged Samuel L. Jackson), with a penchant for eating peculiar children’s eyeballs.

Well, it’s based on a YA book. What did you expect? What did I expect? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect–I’ve never read the books. Maybe the plot would make more sense if I had. As it stands, I’m not sure if it has to make sense, although it couldn’t have hurt the film if things had happened a little more slowly, giving the script room to breathe. That’s always the danger of adapting a book to film; if you aren’t careful, you end up with 127 minutes of “where did that character come from?”

Although, to be fair, the fact that none of the peculiar children were all that developed never bothered me. It was clear from the get go that the children weren’t there to be emotional entry points, but rather, to be weird points on a map of unfamiliar territory. There’s a girl with a mouth of the back of her head and a boy who barfs bees and…that’s all you’re going to learn about them, but that’s all you need to know. I only wish the main characters weren’t equally shallow.

The acting is solid, if unremarkable (both Stamp and O’Dowd are particularly underused). Eva Green is engaging as always, and she does seem to have a good time biting her pipe stem and looking coolly in charge. If anyone onscreen is having more fun than her, it’s Jackson as the cackling villain who, regardless, doesn’t chew quite enough scenery for me. It’s actually kind of funny that Jackson and Burton haven’t teamed up before, as both men have such a flair for the theatrical.

“Peculiar Children’s” strongest point is its look. Burton has always had an artistic eye, and he rarely lets his lens get bogged down with either muddy or uninteresting images. But it’s not until the climax that the movie really feels like Burton. It’s a particularly thrilling scene, where the shambling hollows engage in a larger than life fight with animated skeletons. Shades of outsiders again: bumbling adults, too caught up in their material reality, fail to notice the invisible war that’s going on right around them.

In the hands of a lesser director, the difficulties of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” would perhaps be too great to stand. But, with the capable direction of Burton, we are granted a flawed, albeit amusing, entertainment. It is the nature of Hollywood to craft mountainous franchises out of the molehills of experimentation. As of today, there hasn’t been a sequel announced, but if this is to be “Peculiar Children’s” fate, let us hope it remains in understanding hands.

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