There’s a fine line between having a cinematic style and constant retreads, and it’s one that Tim Burton has been walking for decades. In fact, he’s smashed through it on a number of occasions. While the last half-decade has produced the financially successful, but critically questionable, Alice in Wonderland, it’s also shown that Burton is a filmmaker that often gets mired in the same Gothic sameness of Dark Shadows. He’s even reworked his own material with Frankenweenie, a remake of one of his earliest shorts. Despite a brief foray into biography with Big Eyes, Burton’s latest falls back on familiar aesthetic trappings, forcing the source material’s innate charms to find their own way into the light.
Based on the books by Ransom Riggs, we follow 16-year-old Jacob “Jake” Portman (Asa Butterfield) following the mysterious death of his grandfather Abe (Terrence Stamp). Convinced that the stories Abe told him about monsters and special children were real, he and his father (Chris O’Dowd) travel to an island off the coast of Wales to find the remnants of Miss Peregrine’s (Eva Green) Home for Peculiar Children. Transported to a loop in time where the 3 September 1943 plays out like Groundhog Day, Miss Peregrine protects for her “peculiar” children, who each possess various abilities through a genetic mutation, from Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) and his evil Hollows.
Despite the Burton frippery, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN is a very conventional film in terms of its overall narrative. That’s not to say that there isn’t an imaginative series of set-pieces. After all, this is a film that has a child with a mouth in the back of her head, another with a beehive in his stomach, and yet another who can resurrect the dead with a seemingly infinite supply of hearts he carries around. In particular, the scenes surrounding the aerokinetic Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell) creating pockets of air inside a sunken ship are quite spectacular. Yet Jane Goldman’s script feels tethered to convention, just as the light-as-air Emma is grounded by lead shoes and rope. The film almost ambles through its first two acts before reaching the inevitable confrontation, knowing that it had to tick off certain touchstones and just making the check-boxes a little larger.
The cast is a mixed bag, or a peculiar lot if you prefer, with Butterfield and the usually reliable O’Dowd presenting some of the more distracting performances. Both UK-born actors give “American” accents that are not only geographically inconsistent, but ones that regularly slip throughout the film. Of the children, only the seasoned Purnell (Maleficent, Kick-Ass 2, Never Let Me Go) manages to warrant any emotional investment. Green is outstanding, and possibly the best thing in the film as she slips effortlessly back into Burton’s world, conclusively proving that she is the master of throwing shade on screen.
Burton’s film will undoubtedly remind you of other adapted franchises, not least of which are the X-Men and Harry Potter films. This is to be expected when you are dealing with homes for children born with special abilities, and a young man who suddenly finds out that he belongs to that world. That said, while it may be derivative, at least in a way that all stories share some commonality, there’s an indefinable charm that compels you to stay a while longer.