Starring: Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Ella Purnell
Director: Tim Burton
Running Time: 127 mins
Synopsis: Teenager Jake (Butterfield) is told of a secret place where children with special gifts are kept hidden from society. Run by eccentric Miss Peregrine (Green) who maintains their sanctity through a time loop, Jake’s arrival brings with it the villainous Hollows who are set on killing these Peculiar children.
Tim Burton has reached an impasse lately. Each one seems to be a never ending parade of oddball characters, familiar Gothic production design and an insistence on using the same players in each film. One step away from self-parody, it seemed like all was lost for this once uniquely gifted director. 2014s Big Eyes was an attempt to move away from these trappings but became lost in a sea of awkward tonal lurches and Christoph Waltz overacting. When Miss Peregrine’s was announced, an adaptation of a kids novella featuring strange old timey photos of unusual looking kids, it appeared we’d be getting another cliched ride into Tim Burton familiarity. Strangely this most Tim Burtony of concepts is very much of its own kind.
Leaving behind the Johnny Depps and the Bonham Carters, and the go to Danny Elfman score, we open with an oddly leaden sequence of events. In building a new universe, screenwriter Jane Goldman (X-Men First Class) struggles to make the heavy exposition feel natural. Elsewhere she graces the dialogue with a dark wit delivered admirably by a fine array of performers. The opening scenes are not promising though. There is a stuttering nature to the editing with sequences rarely coming to life. Butterfield’s Jake is primarily responsible, not through performance; he is perfectly decent, but via the utter blandness of the character. In fact he doesn’t really come into his own until well past the third act mark. Seeing as we follow events through his eyes it means the whole film suffers from having its central character being someone we don’t really fancy watching.
Once he discovers the titular house via a time loop, the time constructs here are far far too complicated, things pick up somewhat. We realise that Miss Peregrine’s is pretty much a period X-Men, with social outcasts, super powers (or peculiarities as they call them) and a Professor X figure in Eva Green’s titular homeowner. Green is gorgeously captivating as always, with her husky European voice and vibrant eyes, she is the heart of the film. Smoking a pipe (a terrifically sexy image) whilst being fiercely protective of her charges and doling out life lessons with a wink, she is so good that when the plot requires her to sit out the latter half the film can’t help but suffer.
The other adults in this endeavour also deliver the goods. Samuel L Jackson chews the scenery with gusto, and is genuinely creepy (more on that in a minute), and there is able support from Judi Dench, Rupert Everett and Terence Stamp. Chris O’Dowd, however, is woefully miscast as Jake’s louche father. Dowd is far too nice to pull off dickish, although his yank accent is pretty solid. But what of the children themselves? A mixed bag, Purnell is an ethereal presence but her chemistry with Jake is a bust, and the others do a nice line in childish joy coupled with pangs of sadness. Although a number of them do suffer from over egging the melodrama towards the end. You can’t help but warm to them though and I’d be happy to spend more time with them should this be successful enough.
The inconsistency stretches to the direction too. Burton struggles with tone here as he did with Big Eyes. He cannot quite intermingle the darkness with the sense of wonder that so worked for successful YA fiction like Harry Potter. One action scene in the finale is visually sumptuous but curiously coupled with a strange pumping dance track!! Where he does succeed though is in conjuring up some truly terrifying imagery. Reminiscent of 80s Spielberg, Joe Dante and even early Burton himself, it manages to sneak legitimately horrifying moments into a family film. The imposing Hollows are persistent and nightmarish, while scenes of Sam Jackson guzzling down squishy eyeballs with delight is one the little ones may not forget. The story may offer little new but the images see a director having a little fun with his imagination, I just wish he’d spent more time applying that originality to the rest of the picture.
Verdict: A minor return to form for a director previously lost to a dull safety net. It has flaws in its story, lead character and control of tone but manages to conjure up moments of real terror. Let’s just hope next time Burton concentrates on plot originality rather than just the visuals.