I have not read the eponymous novel on which MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN Is based, but a quick check of the of the Wikipedia entry for it reveals that for the screen adaptation many of the characters have been modified and plot point changed. This is not uncommon, and when the original source material featured a plethora of vintage photographs around which the narrative was structured, more than changes are necessary for the smooth transition from one medium to another. What is needed is a bold creative vision. Director Tim Burton, oft billed as a visionary directory, has gotten it half right.
The Peculiars of the title are people with special powers. Think Mutants or Wizards. It’s a genetic thing, with a recessive gene sometimes skipping generations, and each Peculiar has a particular peculiarity. But our hero, Jake (Asa Butterfield), knows none of this as the film begins. At 16, he is a lowly stock boy unnoticed by his peers and living a life that is crushingly ordinary. That changes when his beloved grandfather, Abe (Terrence Stamp), takes a steep dive off the deep end, ranting about danger and demanding the return of the key to his gun cabinet. Said key was taken by Jake’s father (Chris O’ Dowd) out of concern for the old man’s safety, but Jake’s latest visit to check on Abe finds the house in tatters, and Abe himself eyeless, near death, and begging Jake to find the loop and have the bird explain it all to him. Thus begins Jake’s adventure into a realm less ordinary courtesy of the titular home and its equally titular headmistress (Eva Green), a Peculiar with the ability to manipulate time and to turn into a bird.
There is a great deal of plot, all of it imaginative, but little of it with an emotional resonance that makes the upcoming struggle between the good Peculiars and the evil Peculiars, those are the one with the weird white eyes, compelling. It’s less the emotional rollercoaster it ought to be than a dazzling display of state-of-the-art digital effects. From the sweeping arabesque that turns Miss Peregrine into an actual peregrine, to the homage to Ray Harryhausen where skeletons spring to life to battle razor-toothed, stilt-limbed monsters with tentacles snaking in sinuous profusion from their mouths, it’s a visual feast. Ms Green herself is endlessly intriguing as the time-obsessed headmistress with an arch demeanor that barely masks a puckish sensibility and a warm heart. She even unequivocally holds her own against a hairstyle that threatens to take flight at any moment. As does Samuel L. Jackson against not only his electric shock of white hair and even whiter eyes, but also the tangle of needle-like teeth that he displays with the suitable élan of the boisterously ironic villain of the piece. Alas, the rest of the cast pales in comparison, working with characters that are tragically underwritten and reduced to the complexity of
trick ponies. One trick ponies, at that. A state of affairs exacerbated by the lack of chemistry between Jake and the winsome Emma (Ella Purnell), a Peculiar who is lighter than air, which provides the not uninteresting spectacle of her bobbing along behind Jake at the end of a tether held firmly in his hands. Burton seems uninterested in the live-action component that comes between the bouts of CGI, gifting it with lackluster pacing as his protagonists fumble easy shots and make several questionable decisions as the action progresses in occasionally questionable ways.
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN lacks the vital spark to make it soar the way its eponymous heroine does. It’s a disservice to Ms Greene, and, I suspect, the source material that spent so much time on bestseller lists.