Once upon a time, Tim Burton wrote an illustrated book of short poems called The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories in which the goth icon lovingly rendered a range of freakish kids and their adventures. The book was gleefully received by his fans and critics alike in 1997, some even hoped he may one day put his gallery of ghastly misfits up on the big screen.
With the director’s adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he’s ostensibly realized those hopes and has revitalized his morbid mojo in the process. But as much as he delights in playing with a cast of characters that could have just as easily leapt from his mind instead of the source material, Burton still sulks when it comes to doing his chores.
THE DREAM TEAM
The glove-fitting nature of Riggs’ 2012 novel doesn’t just apply to Tim Burton’s sensibilities, it also slips just as neatly on its screenwriter’s hand too. Jane Goldman is the go-to lady for adapting teenage flights of fancy in the present day and she does sterling work again here, despite having to wrangle a plot that can kindly be described as “elaborate” into a two-hour running time. The likes of Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kick Ass have proven time and again that she’s probably the best writer of teenage characters since John Hughes but it’s her experience in writing X-Men: First Class that serves her best here.
It would surprise no one if the pitch to 20th Century Fox to option the novel had been “It’s the X-Men meets Harry Potter” and certainly the first half of that is true. Miss Peregrine’s “home” bears some parallels with Dr. Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: she takes in children with “peculiarities”, teaches them how to use their abilities responsibly as well as protecting them from a world that wouldn’t accept them in a house that’s locked in a Groundhog Day-like loop ensuring the children never grow old. Likewise, just as there are peculiars who use their powers for good, there are also those that use them for harm who are constantly hunting for these loops to harvest the eyes of other peculiars (we’ll be heading firmly into “tl;dr” territory in explaining why that is).
After a first act that is functional at best, Aja Butterfield -in surely his swansong as a wide-eyed urchin here- is our protagonist/surrogate who happens across the ruins of the children’s home in the modern day having been led there by the mysterious death of his grandfather (Terence Stamp) and is promptly led back in time to 1943 to see the house in its full glory in Britain during World War II. It’s during this second act where the film really shines as we meet the kids and Burton delights in showing off their abilities which are equal parts dark and ethereal, useful and useless.
Unfortunately, this second act is indispersed with Butterfield’s Jake returning to the real world which dominated the first act and the only person more bored than audience during these stretches is the director himself which causes vast chasms in the film’s pacing. That pace quickens quick-smart though in the final act as the film’s antagonist, played by Samuel L. Jackson (if you’ve seen Jackson play a villain before then you know what to expect), makes himself and his plans apparent leading to a myriad chain of events, the highlight of which is a Jason and the Argonauts style showdown on Blighty’s very own Blackpool pier.
In terms of content and characters, it’s hard to imagine anyone better -despite a decade’s worth of misfires and indulgence- to realize them than Burton and this is definitely a return to his 90’s form when it comes to production & character design. However, Burton has always been a mediocre storyteller who simply switches to autopilot when he needs to tell instead of show, so it’s difficult to imagine anyone worse to handle a plot and concepts that constantly flirt with convolution.
It’s not entirely his fault that the whole thing feels rushed since so much explanation is necessary to build the world and awareness of its mechanisms which lead to an interminable amount of exposition dumps to meet a hopelessly optimistic 2-hour running time. No doubt 20th Century Fox has eyed this project since the start as a potential franchise so the emphasis here is very much on setting out the stall rather than telling a sweeping, satisfying narrative.
Jane Goldman does what she can to fill out the characters and give some nice inflections of sexual awakenings and moralities of personalities trapped in children’s bodies for too long but eventually the screenplay succumbs to that annoying trait of giving all of the gifted youngsters something to do. One has to wonder if Goldman’s regular collaborator Matthew Vaughn had been calling the shots instead, would we have had a far slicker affair given the British director’s flair for pacing and set-pieces.
And while it’s admirable that the film feels no need to tone down its more ghoulish and strange moments, it also begs the question of who this actually aimed at other than Burton fans -who probably upgraded to Guillermo Del Toro years ago- given how dark the tone can occasionally get. It would be a shame if it can’t find an audience wide enough to kickstart a saga since a sequel free of all the world-building hard labor on show here would be very welcome.
A BEAUTIFULLY REALISED DARK FLIGHT OF FANCY WEIGHED DOWN BY A CROWDED CAST AND NARRATIVE THAT COULD LEAD TO A FAILURE TO LAUNCH.