While I've often appreciated the films of Tim Burton, I've very rarely loved them, finding him too often to be so involved with the the look of his films that he forgets he's supposed to be telling an actual story. Add to that the nearly constant inclusion of Johnny Depp (who is a dominating presence, to say the least), and his recent films have felt both one note and exhausting.
While he didn't direct the disastrous Alice Through the Looking Glass that was released earlier this summer, it still had his handprints all over it, and Burton is probably hoping Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will wash away the memory of that mistake. Sadly, it will have to be chalked up as another failure.
Based on the first book in a young adult series by author Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's centers on Jacob (Asa Butterfield), a Florida teen who is closer to his grandfather (played by Terence Stamp) than to his dad, partially because Grandpa told some pretty great bedtime stories in his youth. But Grandpa's continuing insistence that those stories weren't just stories is chalked up to dementia as he's grown older, and Jacob begins to doubt him too.
When his grandfather meets a gruesome fate, it convinces Jake that he had been telling the truth all along. He persuades his distant and bird-watching (?!) father (Chris O'Dowd) to accompany him on a trip to an island in Wales, to see that "home for peculiar children" where his grandfather was once a resident.
What follows involves portals, time travel, and those aforementioned peculiar children, who are all living the same day in 1943 over and over again to avoid eyeball-eating "Hollowghasts." (Seriously.) Jake is looked on with suspicion by residents like Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), the sullen boy who can bring inanimate objects to life, and is clearly a stand-in for Burton himself. Others can't help but be drawn to him, like Emma (Ella Purnell), the literally ethereal blonde who would float away if not weighted down by her steampunk metal shoes.
Maybe 20 years ago, a home full of kids with "special" and often supernatural talents would have elicited some sense of wonder or excitement, but all I could think was, "Yeah, I liked this place better when it was known as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters."
Burton's latest "muse" Eva Green (when you've got a type, you've got a type!) plays Miss Peregrine. She gives an enjoyably weird and off-kilter performance, speaking in an odd, clipped accent and gliding around with birdlike movements, which is appropriate considering Peregrine isn't just her name.
But she's really the only standout in a film that feels phoned in. The majority of the kids are reduced to the peculiarities and given no real personality, and Jake spends way too much of the movie as an observer instead of a hero.
But where the movie really fails is with the bad guys, lead by Samuel L. Jackson. God bless him, but I'm just plain tired of seeing him show up as the villain! Especially when he doesn't bring anything new or exciting to the role. Here he's the same old grinning monster, cracking wise but rarely saying anything that's actually funny.
It doesn't help that he's also in charge of some monsters that are so unoriginal, I was sure their initial appearance was a joke. Ha ha, you thought the bad guys were gonna just be eyeless and noseless dudes with fang-filled mouths, AGAIN? — just kidding! Here's something REALLY SCARY!
No such luck.
The original book's best aspect was its use of found photographs as a starting-off point for a supernatural story: Actual found black-and-white photos of spooky-looking kids doing things that look unexplainable are interspersed throughout the book. Of course, the photos are really just old camera tricks, but having them included in the book with a backstory adds a certain sense of plausible reality to the whole thing.
Burton barely gives those photos a passing moment, taking away the one thing that would explain why Jake was convinced his grandfather's stories were true. But I suppose that makes sense. The film actually does come off like a long-winded and boring tale told by someone who's probably ready for his pudding a nice long nap.