It’s no secret that Tim Burton and I have been beefin’ for a long, long time. I find it one of the most frustrating occurrences in modern cinema that the man who filled my early years with such innovative wonders as Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice has become so recently creatively bankrupt with remakes of things like Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory that, whilst being financial successes, failed to do anything for me other than create a longing for ‘the good old days’. Would Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children continue in this disappointing vein, or would it bring back some of the old Tim Burton that pictures like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and Corpse Bride have given us through the years?
Based on a 2011 novel by Ransom Riggs, the film tells the story of Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield), a teenage boy who, after the death of his grandfather, travels to a small island off the coast of Wales in search of the children’s home where he grew up. In a narrative that indulges in both fantasy and time travel, Jake finds himself in the company of Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and a whole host of, you guessed it, peculiar children that live in a single day time loop in September 1943. Jake soon learns that this particular children’s home is anything but ordinary, and the plot progresses as a literal race against time to try to right certain wrongs and defeat certain enemies before loops seal shut mysteries remain unsolved. Everything about the premise and potential tone of this film felt like a perfect fit for the directorial imagination of Tim Burton, but the main conclusion I found myself coming to was that it detrimentally didn’t feel much like a Tim Burton film at all. The most enjoyable moments of the picture are the smaller character moments in which we are introduced to each peculiar child and learn about their individual peculiarities, this is a Burton skill that can be traced as far back as when we are first introduced to Edward Scissorhands, or first hear the internal conflict of Jack Skellington during his musical lament in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Unfortunatley, what happens when the film is forced to move away from these character moments is that a story with some really great and creepy promise gets bogged down by an overly complicated time travel plot that doesn’t seem to care about the inconsistency of its own rules.
Admittedly there are some great trademark Tim Burton touches, but overall it feels a little sterile and sanitised compared to his best works, sacrificing a large slice of melancholy in order to incorporate the typical young adult tropes that the original source material obviously contained. Does the story really need an underdeveloped and out of place feeling teenage romance to go along with the mild gothic horror that envelopes the narrative? Absolutely not, but we get one anyway, and in truth it feels as though Burton was as unenthusiastic about putting this young adult cliche at the forefront as I was. There is also a question to be asked about how comprehensible the details of the plot actually are, with so much time travel and not enough clever explanation leaving much of the narrative, I would imagine, very hard to understand for younger viewers.
Though the actual plot of the film leaves a lot to be desired, it can’t be denied that the cast all do a fine job. Eva Green makes for a perfect Tim Burton muse, just like Helena Bonham Carter before her and Winona Ryder even further back. Green possesses a natural and unrelenting weirdness that is merged with a brisk yet affectionate manner, almost Mary Poppins-like in the way she cares for and defends her peculiar charges. If anything, the film does not do enough to make the most of Green’s enigmatic on screen presence, and you leave almost wishing that the picture was more about her and less about Jake and his personal journey. Speaking of Jake, Asa Butterfield gives a perfectly solid performance as the classic teenage kid who is uncomfortable in his own skin until he finally finds a purpose. Perhaps the fault lies in my own dislike for cliched young adult tropes, but regardless of Butterfield’s inoffensive performance, the character fell flat for me, and that is a big problem when said character happens to be the protagonist. A number of high profile cameos are made by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench and Allison Janney with varying degrees of success. Dench gives a small but fitting performance, the fuller version of which one can’t help but think was mostly left on the cutting room floor, whilst Jackson clearly revels in his villainous role but plays the whole thing a little too camp and comical for my liking.
Overall, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a perfectly serviceable mild gothic horror adventure, but it is far from the return to form that I was hoping for from its iconic director. The messiness of the film’s central time travel theme results in a real feeling of disjointedness and disconnection between the story and the audience, and though there are some genuinely frightful and borderline gory moments, the whole thing always feels rather safe and uninspiring. A quirky and enigmatic performance by Eva Green, but everything else feels decidedly like Tim Burton ‘lite’.