1999 was a very good year for film, and how much more peculiar Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might have been had it come out that year, before the X-Men and Harry Potter franchises were launched in 2000 and 2001, respectively.
Curiously gifted/cursed children who come together and live apart from the rest of the world at a secret establishment under the guidance of a wise and powerful British-accented mentor would have seemed fresher and more striking before the 14 or so films in those two franchises.
That wouldn’t make Miss Peregrine better or worse as a film, but perhaps it would have been easier to be more forgiving. Even in 1999, it would have to be admitted that Jake (Hugo’s Asa Butterfield) makes a dull protagonist. So did Harry Potter, admittedly, but then Harry had a horrific upbringing that made him immediately sympathetic, not to mention a mysterious back story, a sense of specialness, and remarkable gifts that were all quickly developed, whereas it’s a long time before Jake is anything but boring.
True, he had a remarkable grandfather, Abe Portman, played with sturdy gravitas by Terence Stamp. As a child young Jake is dazzled by Abe’s tales of hunting monsters in Poland in his youth with other peculiar young people, and the Holocaust/Nazi-hunting metaphor would stick even if the monsters weren’t called Hollowgasts (pronounced, you know, a lot like “Holocausts”).
As he grows up, Jake realizes that no one else believes Abe’s stories, even Abe’s own son Franklin (Chris O’Dowd), who of course is Jake’s father. After Abe dies, Franklin tries to explain to Jake, “You were closer to him than I ever was…I think your grandpa didn’t know how to be a dad.”
Franklin doesn’t seem to be a whole lot better in the dad department; disappointment with fathers looks like an incipient theme in the early going, but evaporates once Jake connects with the sternly maternal Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar group of children, Abe’s one-time companions.
The Peculiars haven’t changed much since the 1940s — at all, really, since for them it’s still 1943; it’s a time-bending thing, obviously — and they welcome Jake in Abe’s place. Because they haven’t met anyone new in decades, you can understand them taking eagerly to Jake, but the fact is that none of them is much more engaging as a character than Jake.
Green brings serene self-satisfaction and mystery to the role of Miss Peregrine, but after awhile she starts to feel like Mary Poppins without Bert clowning at her side, alternately exasperating and humanizing her. Perhaps we haven’t seen a woman before in the Xavier/Dumbledore role, though McGonagall came close, particularly toward the end of the Harry Potter saga. But Dumbledore, Professor X and McGonagall are all more human than Miss Peregrine.
There’s a certain poignancy to some of the Peculiars’ peculiarities. Olive (Lauren McCrostie) needs gloves to keep from setting things on fire with her touch. Millard (Cameron King) is invisible, and can’t not be. Claire (Raffiella Chapman) has monstrous jaws on the back of her skull. And so on.
Then there’s Ella (Emma Bloom), who relies on lead shoes or a tether to keep her from floating off like a balloon. Ella’s interest in Jake is clearly linked to her feelings for Abe, who, from her indeterminate point of view, somehow has always just left her. There’s a sad sweetness to her attempts not to acknowledge the transferral of her feelings to Jake, partly not to lay any claim to him, and partly perhaps to spare herself if and when he too leaves.
The story unfolds rather staidly and predictably until the weirdness kicks in — and when it does, Burton aficionados may be stoked, but the tonal shifts are so extreme that they took me out of the film.
First there’s the boy (Finlay MacMillan) who animates dead things, including, horribly, a dead peer whose incorruptible corpse lies in state, always freshly slain. Then there are inhuman monsters killing Peculiars, including children, and feasting on their eyeballs, heaps of eyeballs of murdered children on platters, being eaten with forks.
Maybe this is less of an issue on the page than on the screen. For the most part I watched Miss Peregrine much as I would Steven Spielberg’s charming The BFG or Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, with a child’s eyes (or a parent’s). Sometimes, though, it lurches in directions at once too juvenile for grownup tastes and too gruesome for kids.
Maybe there’s a sweet spot around 10 to 13 where it might feel gleefully transgressive. Maybe Burton is making movies for his inner 12-year-old and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. I’d like to think even at 10 to 13 I would have been underwhelmed. I certainly hope my 10-year-old and 13-year-old would be.
Not until Samuel L. Jackson shows up as the heavy does the film seem to breathe at all. Jackson utters his dialogue with entertaining aplomb, as if even he can’t believe what he’s saying; lines that wouldn’t be funny if anyone else said them are funny just because it’s him. Is it enough to save the movie? No, but it helps. (Jackson, a rare non-white presence in a Burton film, plays this film’s only character of color. In a story with a worldwide premise, it’s not easy to see why this should be the case.)
There are some memorable images, a number of which involve lighter-than-air Ella and a secret refuge that is pressed into unexpected service in the third act. Of these, the most ambitious is not as fresh as it would have been before, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
There I go again: I can’t stop thinking about how this film would have played circa 1999. Before Big Fish, another Burton film about a child disillusioned with a paternal figure’s tall tales who goes to investigate the truth of them. Before Frankenweenie, which also climaxes with children taking on monstrous creatures — products of experimentation gone wrong — in public at some sort of fairgrounds.
But here we are: It’s 2016, and Miss Peregrine, bright spots notwithstanding, is not a very good movie. Most of the better ideas have been done elsewhere, or take place in the margins of the movie. I like the boy (Hayden Keeler-Stone) who projects his dreams like movies through his eyes. If only this movie had a better idea what to do with such a peculiarity.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.