Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a Tim Burton movie through and through. It’s yet another of his stories about pale loner weirdos confronting an abrasive normality that has no idea what to do with them. Here’s where I’d list off a few relevant comparisons from the filmmaker’s back catalogue, but we all know in this case it’d just be a complete list of his work, from Pee Wee and Beetlejuice to Batman and Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood and Big Eyes to Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows and on and on. This particular iteration, adapted by screenwriter Jane Goldman (Stardust) from the book by Ransom Riggs, locates a group of fantastical freak show oddities hidden in an orphanage in Wales wilderness and a time-bending bubble of stasis that protects them from prying normal eyes. Their secret is out, though, in the creepy bedtime stories of a grandfather (Terrence Stamp) whose mysterious death sends his teenage grandson (Asa Butterfield) off in search of the peculiar children.
That sounds simple enough, and it’s certainly sufficient reason for Burton to play around with eerie horror imagery. By the time the grandson finds the peculiars he sees an invisible boy, a girl as strong as ten grown men, a firestarter, tiny twins in spooky masks and white burlap suits, a surly teen who can animate the inanimate, and a girl lighter than air who must wear lead shoes to keep her grounded. It’s the sort of hard-edged whimsy that’s fine creature fantasy and can also hit genuinely unsettling notes, especially by the time their headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, underplaying her wild-eyed chirping mode), informs the lad that they’re being hunted by tall, pale, long-limbed, faceless tentacle-squirming invisible monsters and their haunting masters (led by a campy, pupil-less, white-haired Samuel L. Jackson). It involves a disgusting plot to eat the eyeballs of peculiars everywhere in a bid for immortality, a slight shift after the villains’ plan to suck the lifeforce out of shape-shifting birds backfired in gnarly fashion.
As I recount the basic facts of the plot this doesn’t sound so complicated. But in practice it plays out as a ton of unwieldy setup that must be hurdled to get to the fun parts. Instead of drawing its point-of-view character – and, by extension, the audience – into the world, clearly establishing lines of conflict and reasons for suspense, the film progresses as a jumble of fits and starts. It leads to confusion. As I watched grotesque tableaus and cute creepiness I took some delight in the off-kilter Burton-y visual aspects – although its images are curiously scrubbed clean of the textures and atmosphere with which his other films excel – but it wasn’t cohering. Worse, it wasn’t providing a narrative engine, or a reason to care. It’s one of those teen fantasy novel adaptations where every faction has a name and every backstory has its corresponding jargon and every gesture is imbued with meaning readers can intuit while leaving the unfamiliar in the cold. By the time it is finished introducing everybody and sets up the stakes, it turns into something much more reasonably diverting. But even then it’s hard to be too invested in the happenings.
There’s a fun conclusion involving nonsensical time travel, a tapestry of teamwork powers in action, teeth-gnashing villain monologuing, and fun unreal effects work. Burton’s facility with CG still doesn’t match the thrill of his early days with makeup, miniatures, and stop motion tricks, but at least here it’s blended in with the slightly softer visual sense. Until the movie finally dispenses with cloudy setup and gets down to action, there’s no sense of true invention, all the best moments passing quickly while the plot follows a glum drumbeat of its own convoluted internal logic. There’s an artifice that’s not like the giddy creativity of early Burton or even the confident self-referential Gothic Hammer Horror-riffing that he’s played so enjoyably before. No, here it’s just phony, with a stiff lead performance (Butterfield clearly stifled under a so-so American accent) animating a painfully routine Chosen One secret-powers-and-totally-unconvincing-romance-subplot scenario. Even the peculiars themselves aren’t full characters so much as visual gags we’re meant to love for their adorable qualities while being alternately charmed and creeped out by their macabre features. The whole movie is a mixed bag, with maybe just enough to like jumbled in with a lot to endure.