Oh, the films you’ll see for the kid(s) in your life. I previously stated I wasn’t going to see Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, mostly because at this point Tim Burton and I have gone our separate ways. Well, he hasn’t gone anywhere, really. He’s still doing the same thing he always has. I’m just not along for the ride anymore. There are only so many black & white/neo-gothic oriented tributes to outsiders I can take. It was cool for the first two decades. Now it’s fallen into the “maybe I’ll wait to rent that one” category.
Then my 9-year-old nephew saw Miss Peregrine and raved about it.
“But Kameron,” I wanted to say, “Don’t you know Tim Burton has lost any feel whatsoever for story, and all the critics say Miss Peregrine starts out surprisingly strong before devolving into a visually pleasing, but narratively confusing mess?”
My nephew’s not a little Spielberg. He’s not some aspiring filmmaker who already pays attention to film criticism or watches with a critical eye of his own. He’s just a kid who went to see the film version of a book he’s been reading with his dad since Miss Peregrine is adapted from the first installment in Ransom Riggs’ best-selling young adult series. And he could not have loved the film any more if he tried. Now here he is asking me see it so we can talk about it.
Awwwwww. You guys, uncle-nephew bonding time.
Also, sigh. This movie’s going to suck, isn’ it?
Turns out, it doesn’t actually suck. For the first hour or so, it’s one of the strongest films Burton has made in quite some time. Then, sadly, it devolves into a visually pleasing, but narratively muddled mess. Wait, isn’t that exactly what most of the critics have been saying [see RottenTomatoes Consensus below]? Yeah, I’m not going to be a voice of dissent on this one.
The plot, with more specifics: Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) has grown up his whole life hearing stories about his grandpa Abe’s (Terence Stamp) battles with gruesome monsters and WWII-era travels, especially his time hanging out with a group of superpowered children in a secret boarding school off the coast of Wales. However, Jake no longer believes those stories, not after one too many embarrassing moments of sharing the stories with kids at school only to be laughed at. As a teenager now, all Jake would prefer to do with his time is figure out how to talk to that cute girl in his class and not come off so super weird.
So, when Jake’s grandpa calls and rants about the monsters having found him it’s clearly just the ramblings of an old man suffering from dementia. Except once Jake gets to his grandpa’s to check in on him he encounters a ghostly visage in the middle of the road, his dying grandpa laid out in the back yard with his eyes gouged out and a tall, menacing monster lurking in the woods.
Well, holy shit. Was Jake’s grandpa telling the truth this entire time?
Yes. The answer is so obviously yes. We’ve seen the trailer. We know the title of the movie. When Abe tells a younger Jake in flashback all about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and shows him pictures of the kids and describes their powers (e.g., this one’s invisible, this one’s super strong) we know it’s all true. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film, though, is the way it initially plays all of this for mystery, turning Jake’s quest to discover his grandpa’s secrets (via a trip to Wales with his dad, played by Chris O’Dowd) into a therapeutic exercise in saying goodbye. It becomes clear Abe was the only person Jake could really talk to, what with his dad constantly deferring to his therapist, and before dying Abe made Jake promise to find Miss Peregrine. The rest of the world thinks he’s crazy, but Jake has to do this to honor his grandpa, the best friend he’d ever had.
By that same token, though, one of the most frustrating aspects of the film is the way it starts to crumble under its own weight once Jake finally happens upon Miss Peregrine (a fierce, if overly one-note Eva Green), her home and all the peculiar children therein (led by saucer-eyed Ella Purnell’s Emma Bloom, who can manipulate air but will literally float away if not grounded by lead boots or other such bottom-heavy contraptions).
Simply put, there is a considerable amount of world-building, backstory-heavy mythology and made-up vocabulary to be digested, seemingly far more than usual for a YA film. Even if you go in thinking of this as a simple one-for-one X-Men riff (i.e., peculiar people are just mutants, Miss Peregrine is just Professor Xavier, the bad guys are just Magneto’s Brotherhood) you’ll walk away wishing it had been that simple.
Imagine if the first ever X-Men film was not Bryan Singer’s lean, streamlined 2000 flick centered around Rogue and Wolverine but instead Bryan Singer’s time travel-heavy 2014 flick Days of Future Past. That would be a super confusing way to start a franchise, right?
Welcome to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which mixes in standard teen angst and wayward teen protagonists finally finding their place in the world with endless talks of time bubbles, convoluted backstories, hamfisted action sequences and a villain (Samuel L. Jackson) who appears to be acting in an entirely different movie than everyone else (although, to be fair, he does have all of the best lines). It’s all been blended together in a vaguely pleasing manner, at least in a “I didn’t mind looking at it for two hours” kind of way, but the emotional throughline gets lost and a finale which probably packed a real emotional punch on the page just kind of hangs there on the screen, begging you to actually care about these characters. Sure, you kind of do because Asa Butterfield and Ella Purnell are likable performers, but you don’t care as much as you’re supposed to.
The irony of this is I have yet to talk to my nephew about the film since seeing it. His enthusiasm appears to have quickly dissipated, his memory of the film increasingly hazy. Or he’s simply moved on to wanting to talk about baseball now. I don’t know. I don’t speak 9-year-old.
THE BOTTOM LINE
They hired the wrong director. Miss Peregrine needed its own Chris Columbus to come in and neatly establish this universe, ala Columbus’ work with the respectable, if unspectuclar first Harry Potter film. The inevitable sequel could have then been picked up by Burton, allowing him the freedom to focus more on producing a visual triumph, i.e., what he does best. Instead, Burton and, by extent, the film itself feels dragged down in multiple parts by the inevitable “And this is how this part of our universe works. Blah, blah, blah…Who cares? Let’s go back to that weird kid who puts hearts into creepy dolls as his way of bringing them to life and then forcing them to fight to the death. That’s the good stuff, right?”
The actual good stuff mostly resides in the film’s first half, which provides just enough of an emotional investment and storytelling hook to carry you through the increasingly messy second half.