April 19, 2018

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Island of Misfit Boys (and Girls) | “Miss Peregrine” Movie Review

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The residents of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, with Jake (Asa Butterfield), third from the left (Photo: Jay Maidment)

The residents of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with Jake (Asa Butterfield), third from the left (Photo: Jay Maidment).

At first glance, the pairing of Ransom Riggs’s macabre 2011 coming-of-age novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and director Tim Burton would seem like a match made in movieland heaven: an Edward Gorey–inspired island of lost souls as filmed through the lens of old-school horror filmmakers, such as Tod Browning (1931’s Dracula  and 1932’s Freaks). But curiously, the combination underwhelms.

Mourning the brutal death of his storytelling grandfather, introverted teen Jake travels with his bird-watching father to the remote Welsh island of Cairnholm (population 92) for “closure,” per his psychiatrist’s recommendation. That’s where his grandpa fled from 1940s Poland to find sanctuary at a home run by a Miss Peregrine. (In the book, all of the children living there are Jewish refugees.)

It turns out that the yarns that Grandpa had spun over the years about his fellow orphans, the Peculiars, weren’t signs of dementia. Emma, who could float off into the sky if not weighed down by her shoes; the invisible Millard; and Hugh, who would spew out a swarm of bees when he opened his mouth, are still alive. Jake stumbles upon them in the looming Bates Motel–like Victorian structure, where they remain forever young. They all exist in a time loop, where it is always September 3, 1943. (Unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the youth don’t complain; for them, it’s a perfect day.) Even the caretaker, Miss Peregrine, is a Peculiar; she has the ability to manipulate time and transform into a falcon, hence her name.

Riggs’s descriptive and cinematic prose easily serves as a storyboard-in-prose for his wide-ranging settings, from suburban Florida to a fog-shrouded isle. Yet the movie’s production design comes off as a literal translation of the book, and little more. Instead of using the novel as a springboard, visually the film looks like a mid-budget movie (though its cost is reportedly $110 million) with a by-the-numbers set design and an anonymous tone. Granted, Burton’s team has to compete against the book’s indelible and plentiful vintage black-and-white photographs Riggs collected at flea markets and swap meets.

Many of Burton’s films have won Academy Awards for their rich, imaginative art direction (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), and his films can also be a showcase for actors, too. Martin Landau won the best supporting actor Oscar for his heartrending portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Michelle Pfeiffer set high claw marks as Catwoman in the otherwise misbegotten Batman Returns, and no one can accuse Johnny Depp of playing it safe in his over-the-top turns (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But in his new film, Burton leaves his juvenile actors on their own, adrift, or more appropriately, orphaned.

Eva Green as Miss Peregrine (Photo: Leah Gallo)

Eva Green as Miss Peregrine (Photo: Leah Gallo).

The proceedings are intermittently stirred by Eva Green as the kind but firm, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, decked out in heavy silk—her character has been described by Burton as “Scary Poppins.” Additionally, Samuel L. Jackson provides moments of humor as a shapeshifting villain. But relying on a too-understated, blank demeanor, Asa Butterfield’s blasé Jake saunters throughout without really taking notice of his surroundings. (Jake discovers he’s a Peculiar, too, and no, he’s not a somnambulist, at least not intentionally.) The energy level in most of the interactions with Jake and the Peculiars remains low as they slog through the extensive exposition. Not that the characters have a lot of depth (even if audiences view the movie in 3-D); the orphans are cursorily introduced, known mainly for their traits.

What eccentricities the makeshift family of youngsters may have, they and everyone else running around this island are swallowed up by the expansive machinations of the plot. This includes the story line of the rapacious and murderous Hollows, a renegade offshoot of the Peculiars who are on the search for the ingredient to everlasting life: the ingestion of the younger Peculiars’ eyeballs.

The overstuffed narrative culminates on the boardwalk of modern-day Blackpool, a British holiday destination that has seen better days, for a battle between the Hollows and the Peculiars set within a carnival show. The climax calls to mind the setting of another book-to-film adaptation and franchise launcher that fizzled, though it, too, featured a starry cast: 2009’s Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.

Directed by Tim Burton
127 min.
Rated PG-13

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Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com