After nearly a decade of live-action disappointments, Tim Burton returns with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an adaptation of the popular novel by Ransom Riggs. The material seems almost tailor-made for Burton’s particular aesthetic, following the adventures of a teenage boy as he discovers an enchanted mansion whose inhabitants are imbued with a litany of supernatural abilities, and it’s easily the director’s best work since 2007’s Sweeney Todd.
Jake (Asa Butterfield) doesn’t exactly have the easiest relationship with his parents, but the scales are more than balanced by his connection to his grandfather Abraham (Terence Stamp). A British veteran of WWII, Abe enthralls the boy with tales of a school for special children where he spent time as a youth before going off to fight in the war. Jake’s father (Chris O’Dowd) dismisses the stories as rubbish, but when Abe dies under suspicious circumstances and Jake catches a glimpse of a mysterious ghostly figure lurking in the neighborhood, he begins to wonder if his grandfather might have been telling the truth.
Traveling to the sleepy seaside village of Cairnholm, Jake is heartbroken to discover the orphanage from his grandfather’s stories was destroyed in a Nazi bombing raid shortly after Abe left for the war. But when he enters the ruined structure and finds himself face-to-face with children he recognizes from Abe’s photo collection, they lead Jake through a portal that transports him back to a time before the destruction. Surrounded by lush gardens and full of curiosities, this is the domain of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), an impeccably dressed headmistress with a Sherlock Holmes pipe and eyeliner that would make Lady Gaga envious.
As it turns out, Miss Peregrine and the children live in a “time loop” which allows them to relive the same day over and over again while never growing older. This also provides a layer of shelter from the outside world, who likely wouldn’t be thrilled to learn about the “peculiars” living in their midst. There’s Olive (Lauren McCrostie), a fiery-haired girl who can set objects aflame with a single touch; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), whose talents enable him to bring inanimate objects to life; and Emma (Ella Purnell), a girl so light that she would float away like a balloon, if not for the heavy metal boots she wears to keep her on the ground.
But much like other tales of teenagers with extraordinary talents – the X-Men and Harry Potter films are evoked on more than one occasion – Miss Peregrine‘s world is also inhabited by villainous peculiars who use their powers for personal gain. Led by the white-haired, white-eyed Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), these “hollowghasts” are hunting down other peculiars and consuming their eyes, whose nutritional properties oddly allow them to masquerade as humans. In one memorable scene, Barron sits down at a table and begins eating the eyeballs of children as casually as if he were spooning up bites of breakfast cereal – it’s creepy, it’s funny, and it feels like vintage Burton.
Butterfield gives another solid (if unremarkable) performance as Jake, and he shares believable chemistry with Purnell’s wispy, wide-eyed waif. Their friendship evolves into romantic connection in a very organic way, and the blossoming love story never feels like it’s been shoehorned into the proceedings. Jackson gleefully hams things up as the sinister, shark-toothed villain, but never feels particularly menacing, while Green is absolutely fabulous as the flamboyant headmistress. It’s a shame we don’t spend more time with her character, especially when the film and its titular school carry her name, as she’s inarguably the most interesting person on the screen.
Regrettably, Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children completely unravels during the third act with an overblown, CGI-heavy climax that robs the film of the charm displayed for its first 90 minutes. It’s the same sort of misguided decision that plagued other tentpole releases this year – including Ghostbusters and Suicide Squad – as the film tries to compensate for weak storytelling with absurdly grandiose action sequences that lack any real weight. There’s also a ridiculous battle set against a boardwalk carnival that boasts some of the worst music ever used for an action sequence – it’s absolutely cringe-worthy.
These unfortunate shortcomings aren’t likely to dissuade families from enjoying Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, but some folks may find Burton’s macabre sense of humor and the film’s thinly veiled references to the atrocities of WWII a little off-putting. The similarities to the Harry Potter catalog are undeniable, and 20th Century Fox is no doubt hoping to create a franchise that will generate similar success at the box office – hopefully the next installment will be a little more confident in its identity.