Tim Burton’s newest film, based on Ransom Riggs’ graphic trilogy “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” delivers Halloween eye candy but fails to satisfy the audience with any thematic meat to chew on.
Burton consolidates Riggs’ thriller trilogy into a single film, a fact which will cause more cringing from fans of the books than will the disturbing style which has become Burton’s trademark. By combining color and whimsy with the macabre, Burton creates a captivating visual paradox of unnatural and shocking beauty. In this way, the film resembles Burton’s other works (such as “Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Edward Scissorhands”), complete with reanimated corpses, a feast of human eyeballs, and a child with a monster mouth in the back of her head. The effect is an amusing combination of fascination and horror: pure Burton. Though Burton delivers the sensational visual effects which audiences have come to expect from his work, this film lacks the thematic punch of his previous movies, leaving the audience feeling like it’s been all show and no tell.
Viewers follow the adventures of Jacob Portman, played by Asa Butterfield (from “Ender’s Game”), who is haunted by his grandfather’s bedtime stories about monsters with tentacles for tongues, children born with unnatural abilities, and their shape-shifting protector, Miss Peregrine. Only when he finds his grandfather dying in the backyard after suffering a mysterious monster attack does Jacob begin to wonder whether the stories might not have been so imaginary. With his dying breath, Jacob’s grandfather tells him to go to Wales to the home for peculiar children, where the actual Miss Peregrine will answer all of his questions. Desperate for answers, Jacob convinces his skeptical parents to take him to the island which served as the setting for all of his grandfather’s fantastic tales.
Once on the island, he discovers that the imaginary Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her children are not fiction but flesh and blood peculiarities living in a time loop in 1947. Here Burton shines in all his own peculiar glory, showing off his skills with special effects as he creates Emma, a girl so lightweight she must wear leaden shoes to stay on the ground; Myllard, an invisible boy who can only be seen when he wears his clothes; Hugh, a boy with a swarm of bees living in his belly which sometimes pop out when he burps; and Enoch, a boy who has the ability to reanimate corpses using animal hearts. Miss Peregrine herself proudly gives Jacob a guided tour of the house and its inhabitants, introducing all her children like proud mother hen. In a particularly “Burtonian” scene, Enoch revives Vincent, a peculiar who was murdered by one of Jacob’s grandfather’s monsters. Miss Peregrine has preserved Vincent’s body in the attic with meticulous care, tortured by her one failure as a protector. As the plot progresses, the children and Jacob must pool their weird powers together with Miss Peregrine in order to escape the cruel appetites and schemes of the monsters and their leader, Dr. Golan.
Eva Green executes a marvellous performance as Miss Peregrine. With the help of several key props (such as a pipe, sweet steampunk styled attire, and a convincing special effects bird transformation), Green evokes the dark and quirky style of Burton while also rendering a maternal pathos to the role, providing a beating heart to the plotline that would otherwise be cold as a corpse. In a singularly poignant scene Miss Peregrine sacrifices herself for the sake of her wards. The children gather around her skirt like chicks around their strange mother-raven, and she claims with tears in her eyes, “It has been a privilege to care for you all.” This scene is perhaps the only moment of effective poignancy in the whole movie, the rest is driven entirely by plot, special effects, and sub-par child actors.
The children show off their lack of acting skills in a predictable and somewhat creepy child love story between Jacob and Emma, who was interested in his grandpa back in the 1940s (you know, when he wasn’t old and dying in the backyard). Neither one of the actors has the chops to pull off being in love; thus the kiss at the end (oops: spoiled) comes off as just plain uncomfortable. (Roll credits. Please.)
And though Butterfield (Jacob Portman) looks the part of a Burton character with his transparently pale skin, dark hair, and massive pools of blue eyes, he fails to animate his character with any semblance of personality. (Somebody pass him an animal heart. By god, this kid is dead inside.) In his defense, the uninspiring script doesn’t give him much help. Cool costumes and doe eyes do not a moving romance make. As a result, the final scene, the kicker, the one that’s supposed to leave me with that fuzzy feeling of satisfaction, falls completely flat.
In the end, Miss Peregrine’s character offers more interest to the film in one scene than the primary plot between the children themselves.
While flavors of Burton’s iconic style linger throughout the film, it lacks the dramatic poignancy and the thematic weight of his previous works, leaving the audience with that unsatisfying post-binge feeling of too much sugar and not enough substance. If you’re looking for the perfect spook-time Burton this Halloween, save your movie ticket dollars, snuggle up with some real junk food, and rewatch “Coraline” or “Sweeney Todd.”