So it’s not uncommon for a reviewer to lead into things with some personal story within context of the film or an almost funny tedious link to it. Well...I’m screwed here.What would a geeky loser like me know about that? Okay, enough with the lousy sarcasm, you get the point. In the words of We Are the In Crowd, “We’re all just weird kids in the end”. We’re all a bit peculiar and when we eventually figure out that’s a good thing, it gets a lot easier. That’s why we’ll always like stories about people that are different finding acceptance because we can always see parts of ourselves within their struggle. It’s an idea at the heart of Tim Burton’s new film with extra helpings peculiarity.
When Jake Portman’s (Asa Butterfield – Ender’s Game, Hugo) grandfather passes, he’s compelled to visit the source of his childhood stories on an island off the coast of Wales to separate fact from fiction. He soon learns it was all true upon discovering Miss Peregrine (Ava Green – Casio Royale, Penny Dreadful) and her secret home for children with peculiar abilities.
After his more restrained offering of Big Eyes, this is Tim Burton back as we want him to be: creative and delightfully quirky with his own peculiar inner child firmly in the driver seat. The visualization of characters and settings are by far the film’s best feature. There’s an encapsulating feel of innocence to the idea of the children living forever in a perfect day on the brink of war time destruction, made all the powerful with the '40's setting being devoid of modern distractions. So much so that the early Florida setup scenes feel rather dull by comparison. The visual effects of many powers and abilities are a feast for the eyes in more ways than expected. In particular, a trailer featured sequence of the air manipulating Emma (Ella Purnell – Maleficent) taking Jake to a sunken ship is a fun and imaginative highlight. There’s also a surprising amount of enjoyment from the more domestic moments of life in the peculiar home, from seeing the ways the kids have to adapt for some everyday routines such as a family dinner. The second half of the film transitions into more of an action adventure affair with some good results like a delightfully mad set piece on Blackpool pier. It does see the film taking a bit of downturn as it follows very familiar beats to superhero films and the like (well in many ways, this is X-Men meets Nanny McPhee). However, it’s worth noting that the film is more family-friendly many would expect. While the imagery of the tentacle-spewing Hollow monsters will make it unsuitable for the very young, neither should its 12A/PG-13 rating be taken as a gospel threshold by parents.
Now if there’s something really not at home here, it’s the script which is really surprising considering it’s a Jane Golman screenplay (Kick Ass, Kingsman, X-Men First Class). Now in fairness to her ,she’s fighting uphill against the sheer mountain of explanations and exposition this film requires. Yes, its broad imaginative scope is wonderful but having to explain the abilities of the dozen strong Peculiar Children, resetting time loops, the evil Wights and their agenda, The Hollow monsters and not to mention protagonist Jake and his back story, is almost a film in itself. No individual element is bad but having so much all together puts a strangle hold on the film and times makes it feel like a more eye catching Powerpoint presentation, which is a real shame. The Groundhog Day possibilities of repeated days are barely utilised, and most of the children become mere passengers to the story for all the character overcrowding. Then, there is the dialogue: although it delivers some excellent sections (mostly through Eva Green’s monologues), it frequnetly turns the wrong kind of peculiar. It’s most apparent concerning Jake and Samuel L Jackson’s Mr. Baron at serious detriment to their characters. Especially through the first half, attempts to make Jake endearing to us feel terribly forced as the emotion gets overcooked. Then for Jackson, it’s his jokes.... he gets a lot of them but practically no laughs because they’re all so predictable and unoriginal. He’s being blasted with air breath, cue a bad breath joke. Now, there is an argument for keeping the humour simple because this is a film open to a younger audience but if Pixar has taught us anything these past 20 years, it’s that simplifying means working smarter, not dumbing things down like a Donald Trump rebuttal (<a faint “WRONG” echoes in the distance>).
The cast and characters are strong attributes to the film but Eva Green is in a class of her own being ,the best thing on screen by a nautical mile. In many ways, her character is a familiar archetype yet Green manages to bring a sense of originality to it with her Sherlock-worthy deductive reasoning and passing remarks about the inconvenience of having to kill the locals. Asa Butterworth takes much longer to get into his character. He starts off clunkier than a suit of armour falling down the stairs but soon becomes far more likeable as the starry eyed newb amongst the other children. Samuel L Jackson is an odd cross between his roles in Jumper and The Spirit, neither of which were his best, so it’s not surprising his composed yet eccentric villain persona here doesn’t come together either. Of the Peculiar Children, the aforementioned Ella Purnell is a standout, being very likeable which makes the typical romantic subplot with Jake much easier to swallow. A worthy mention also goes out to Finlay MacMillan’s (Waterloo Road) necromantic Enoch. Sadly, the adult supporting members get more of a rough time. Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd) is very underutilized as Jake’s father, barely scratching the surface his comedic potential. Though worst of all is the legendary Judi Dench: she’s practically thrown on and off screen before getting to make any contribution.... shame <ring ring> shame <ring ring> shame.
Overall, Miss Peregrine’s is an enjoyable and entertaining family film with a good helping of weirdness but anyone that’s been looking forward to this film following its trailers (myself included) will probably walk away feeling underwhelmed against their expectations. This isn’t Burton at his best but it’s still Burton and certainly packs more life than his Alice or Willy Wonka endeavors. The source material young adult novel (by Ransom Riggs) has two sequels so success could spell a peculiar future. Kubo and the Two Strings is still the preferred family choice, but many will still find themselves at home with Miss Peregrine.