Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is filled with oddball characters possessing strange and wonderful powers. Among them is Claire, the little girl with an extra mouth full of razor sharp teeth hidden under the golden locks of her hair. Hugh is a boy with a hive of bees living in his stomach. Emma is lighter than air; if she takes off her lead shoes, she risks floating away.
It would seem like Tim Burton, the decidedly peculiar director known for bringing similarly oddball characters like Edward Scissorhands and Betelgeuse to life, would be the perfect fit for this story. That’s not the case, though. The characters in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children never take on the rich inner life that Burton was able to explore in a character like Edward Scissorhands, or even the normal ones like Lydia Deetz and the Maitlands. Instead, the most peculiar thing about Claire, Hugh, Emma, and the rest are their individual powers. Burton is never able to get below the surface of their strange gifts in order to create fully formed people.
That’s not to say the movie is a waste of time. It’s very enjoyable as a special effects-driven tale of a group of outsiders teaming up to solve a problem. But Miss Peregrine is not a return to form for Burton. If I hadn’t known he directed it before seeing it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you afterwards that it was his work. It looks and feels like a movie that could have been directed by any competent filmmaker within the realm of big budget fantasy movies.
Miss Peregrine begins with the painfully ordinary Jake Portman. The one thing sixteen-year-old Jake loves the most is Abe, his grandfather. Jake loves the stories Abe has told him over the years about the peculiar children living in an orphanage in Wales, under the protection of the mysterious Miss Peregrine. Jake is shocked when one day he discovers his grandfather dying in the woods behind his house. The person or thing that attacked Abe also horrifyingly removed his eyes. With his dying breath, Abe tells Jake that the stories about Miss Peregrine and her orphans were all true, and that Jake needs to protect them from the same force that took Abe’s eyes. No one believes Jake, and the psychiatrist he’s been seeing suggests to Jake’s parents that they take him to Wales as a way for Jake to get closure after his grandfather’s death.
Burton collaborates with his cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, to underline the difference between the regular, boring world in which Jake has grown up, and the fantastical world in which he finds himself when he discovers the magical orphanage. Jake’s father laments to his son that there is nothing new in the world, because all the discoveries have already been made. The color palette of the world as seen by Jake’s father, especially the coastal town in Wales where father and son are staying, is drab, depressing shades of grey. When Jake is greeted by Emma and Millard, an invisible boy, and he is spirited away with them into the magical time loop where they safely relive the same day in 1940, the difference in colors is almost on the order of Kansas and the Land of Oz in the 1939 classic. Delbonnel paints this new world with rich reds, gorgeous greens, and beautiful blues.
The strength of the visuals in Miss Peregrine stretches far beyond the cinematography. The special effects used to render the children’s peculiarities are inventive and fun. One in particular comes closest to recapturing the magic of something like Burton’s first short film, Vincent. One of the children, Enoch, has the gift of bringing the dead back to life for short periods of time, and can even animate homunculi using tiny bits of scavenged animal heart. Enoch is a bit sadistic, and he brings these tiny creations to life so they can battle for his own pleasure. The one scene that features this ability uses a stop-motion effect that calls to mind Burton’s The Corpse Bride. Sequences like this are too few and far between, though, to make Miss Peregrine distinctly memorable.
The plot, too, is lacking. It’s at times willfully obtuse and disappointingly derivative. As I mentioned earlier, many peculiar children must be protected from forces that wish them harm, so they live in different time loops with an Ymbryne (pronounced im-brin) like Miss Peregrine. Ymbrynes can warp time, and can also take the form of a bird. Because they live in a time loop, the children never grow up. What remains unexplained is why (at least some of them) never seem to progress mentally or emotionally. If they live for hundreds of years, repeating the same day, you would expect all the characters to have a certain maturity, but most of them don’t. The machinations of how time works on either side of the loop and in what circumstances the children are safe outside of the time loop also remain frustratingly opaque. If the children spend too long in a time period that’s not close to their loop, they risk aging rapidly, and dying. This is a real concern for the movie, except when it’s not, for the convenience of the plot.
The unoriginal aspects of the story make Miss Peregrine come off like second-rate Harry Potter. Granted, that may be a fault with the source material, which is also a novel aimed at young readers. The basic premise of a group of special children with fantastic powers under attack from a nefarious force that was once good feels too familiar.
All this makes it seem as though I liked Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children far less than I did. If you don’t expect too much from the director based on his previous work, and you let the story unfold without asking too many questions, it’s a fun escape for a few hours into a mysterious and exotic world.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- The things Miss Peregrine gets right (strong special effects, interesting cinematography) can't make up for the uninspired story, and basic ho-hum-ness of the overall effect.
- Maybe it's not fair, but when a director is involved who has had as interesting of a career as Tim Burton has, I expect more than what I got here.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The casting in Miss Peregrine is a little bizarre. Eva Green as the titular character is excellent. She is an actress who can inject a great deal of mystery and danger into a role, and her performance here is no exception. Terence Stamp and Chris O'Dowd are completely wasted, though. They each have very small parts as Jake's grandfather and father, respectively. O'Dowd, who is a fine actor capable of superb comedic performances, is given next to nothing to do here.