Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children
Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Rupert Everett, Milo Parker, Kim Dickens, Judi Dench, Ella Wahlestedt, Pixie Davies, O-Lan Jones, Scott Handy, Nicholas Amer, Jason Redshaw, Patricia Winker, Kornelia Horvath. Written by Jane Goldman, from the book by Ransom Riggs.
Towards the end of Tim Burton’s adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children, a Ray Harryhausen skeleton army battles invisible monsters on the snow-covered fairground docks in 1940s Blackpool, and the titular peculiar children use their varied and wide-ranging powers to overcome their eyeball-eating adversaries.
It’s the one sequence in the film that really works, because the screenplay isn’t battering us with an encyclopedia of backstory and exposition, and the director finally gets a chance to have some fun with all those oddball characters and sets and special effects.
Burton, of course, is an interesting director, to say the least. Through the 80s and 90s he was virtually unassailable, making films noted not just for their striking sets and visuals but also their unconventional narratives. Even his big-budget Batman movies avoided formula; his best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, were as inventive in storytelling as they were in design.
But an interesting thing happened around the time of Sleepy Hollow, when the director’s striking gothic flair – the template for many subsequent features set in the era – had to contend with a cookie-cutter mystery script. In almost all of Burton’s films since, there’s been a sharp contrast between imaginative visuals and unimaginative storytelling; his best, like Sweeney Todd, are usually his least conventional.
Whatever Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children was on the page – it’s been adapted from the popular young adult novel by Ransom Riggs – the resulting screen version is your average Harry Potter knockoff. And for all the weird Burton visuals, there’s a overly-familiar narrative slog dragging everything down.
Hugo’s Asa Butterfield stars as Jake Portman, a Florida teenager who follows some old stories to a sleepy seaside town on an island off the coast of Wales, hoping to discover the titular school and the strange cast of characters his grandfather (Terrence Stamp) knew before leaving to fight in WWII.
On Cairnholm, Jake is surprised to discover that the children’s home had been destroyed decades earlier after being hit by Nazi bombs. But that doesn’t quite jive with a letter recently sent to his grandfather by the headmistress, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green, who’s quite wonderful here despite somewhat limited screentime).
That’s because he was looking in the wrong time.
The school and its inhabitants still exist, but only in a 1940 “time loop” accessed through a nearby cave: during WWII, Miss Peregrine and her pupils – “Peculiars” that include an invisible boy, a girl who floats, a pair of creepy twins in old Halloween masks, and others – live for a single day before the bombs fall, going back in time every night.
The time loop concept is neat, but there’s a problem here. Roughly 45 minutes of Miss Peregrine goes by before Jake gets to the school in 1940, and another 45 is spent introducing us to all the weird characters and time loop concepts. And as the exposition passes by, no one has anything to do, story-wise, for the first 90 or so minutes of the narrative.
The big conflict in the movie seems to be whether Jake should stick around at the Peculiar school or leave to carry on contemporary 2016 life with his deadbeat ornithologist father (The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd). But dad is entirely unsympathetic, and at 16 Jake should be able to do what he wants.
Then in the last half-hour of the movie, Samuel L. Jackson’s bug-eyed weirdo shows up with some cohorts and the invisible monsters to, uh, well, eat the kids’ eyeballs. For some reason I’m still not entirely clear on.
And yet, despite the rushed final act to an already-overlong film, these late sequences in the movie work best because Burton finally gets to let these bizarre creations loose. The setting, on the 1940s fairground docks at Blackpool that includes one of those haunted house rides, is a real blast.
But by the end, Miss Peregrine had already lost me; if this movie had hoped to become the next Harry Potter franchise, as suggested by the open ending, they stuffed this first entry with far too much exposition to succeed on its own.
Burton, meanwhile, is still as talented a visual filmmaker as he ever was, and mixes CGI with practical effects better than almost any other director working in this realm. Here’s hoping he gets a more imaginative script to work with next time around.