US Release Date: Friday, September 30, 2016
Jacob Portman (Asa Butterfield) believes his grandfather (Terrance Stamp) is slowing going senile. Having spent his life listening to impossible stories of impossible people in an impossible place, Jake is sure that there is nothing more extraordinary going on than a war survivor’s flights of fancy. Then his grandfather is killed by a monster, Jake goes to the island in Wales where those flights of fancy purportedly happened, and he discovers that ol’ Grandpa was telling him the truth all this time. There are birds who smoke pipes, and boys with bees inside them, and girls who float on air.
And there are also those who want to kill them all.
Such is the basic premise of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, both the book and the film.
But. THIS FILM. Ugh.
There are so many reasons that I hate it, I am having difficulty figuring out exactly where to start. First and foremost, it is probably the changes made from the page to the screen — while Ransom Riggs’s original novel is by no means a favorite, I did like it a lot, along with its sequels, and seeing it treated so shabbily here, at the hands of no lesser a personage than Tim Burton, came as a severe blow.
But even setting that frustration aside — which I must, given that some (most?) venturing into the theater will not have read the novels, and will have no investment in who has what powers and what the thrilling climax is supposed to be like — this is simply a bad movie, wrought out of an interesting idea, simultaneously so tiresome and melodramatic that it is like a phone call with an elderly relative freaking out over their precarious medical condition. (They’ll live to 100.)
Oh, the visuals are pretty. There are a few scenes worthy of note — and of even more note, Eva Green is in most of them. Samuel L. Jackson is at his histrionic finest as our main villain. Allison Janney is in it, and Dame Judi Dench is particularly Denchian in her brief appearance. There is a claymation skeleton battle. That is pretty much all I have to say in favor of this film. (I’d include Chris O’Dowd as a plus, because I LOVE him, but his is a very under-written character and could have been played by one of the Real Housewives husbands. Seriously, the CGI has more characterization.)
Now, I say this as someone who completely adored Tim Burton’s insane Alice in Wonderland. Turning that venerable old tale into a girl-power action-fest was pure, mad genius, and I have spent many a happy hour vigorously defending this bizarre, awesome plot choice to sundry friends and acquaintance. I’ll not deny that the sequel didn’t come close to matching the level of sheer moxie the first one required — and I have nothing but contempt for Burton’s other recent remakes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and (so much worse), Dark Shadows — but I went into Miss Peregrine as someone who has enjoyed much of the Burton oeuvre, from as far back as Edward Scissorhands, and have a track record of liking it when he takes certain liberties with his source material.
Then his version of Miss Peregrine unfolded in front of me, and I started to wonder if he was playing a prank of some kind.
There is SO MUCH EXPOSITION, you guys! Half of the movie is, not kidding, converexposation. And yet so much of it is so badly explained that I have read the books and was still like: wait… what? Then there is the show reel of all the Burton classics: the brooding shadows contrasting with a technicolor oasis! The jump cuts that are supposed to be funny! And don’t you just hate people who are not, in some way, weird? Why do they even bother existing? My reaction to Burton’s blatant plagiarism of himself here was akin to my feelings towards Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: that’s a great shot, sir! And it was great the last sixteen times you did it!
I am so disappointed. I was pretty sure, going in, that I’d take issue with Asa Butterfield — who, I will admit, I have not forgiven for the debacle that was Ender’s Game, but is also manifestly not up to the task of making the even-on-the-page rather lackluster Jake even a touch more interesting. (The house full of peculiar kids outpace him easily, and all some of them do is give him a curt nod while demonstrating some sort of odd talent.) But it didn’t occur to me that I would come out of the theater thinking him one of the movie’s lesser evils.
A lot of the trouble stems from Jane Goldman’s screenplay, which is big on the tell and short on the show, and also very big on the long, drawn out stretches where nothing happens, and super big on changing stuff for no reason. I get why Emma’s power is now the floating one (attributed to tiny Olive in the books) — the visual of Jake out for a walk with his new crush, leading her on a rope, is pure teenage boy fantasy, and her inability to stay on the ground without some form of tether throws in just that right touch of angsty it’s-not-meant-to-be-ishness that Burton just loves. She is given a new offensive power, as well, to remain relevant in the action part of the film — rather than her pyrokinesis, she blows at people. Because, sure.
But the main problem really is that for all it prates of magic and tries to convince us that we are seeing an enchanted world just a little bit sideways of our own, that time can be stopped and that people can turn into birds, this whole movie can’t even seem to convince itself of this arcana. Which means, instead of a wondrous awakening, we have a cavalcade of YA cliche, directed by someone who really doesn’t seem to care.
If you have no investment in the books, have never seen a Tim Burton movie, have never read a YA novel and really like that Asa Butterfield then, sure, why not see this movie. But if none of those caveats apply to you, you can probably give it a miss.
Except: Eva Green!