Overwrought Narrative Fills “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” With Air

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s note: This review contains mentions of violence against children and minor spoilers.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the latest reminder of Tim Burton’s spotty history with film. Responsible for an impressive array of beloved classics including Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the underappreciated Sweeney Todd, the director’s genius nonetheless can get away from itself. In works like Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland, his singular vision was clouded by a lack of focus, tending toward visual chaos over in-depth exploration of individual aspects of the world and leaving characters by the wayside. His best works prove that somewhere out there must be a creative climate that suits his process. And since there’s no pattern to his patchwork of hits and flops, one can suppose that Miss Peregrine’s Home, his film adaptation of the acclaimed novel, could have been good. If such a reality exists, it isn’t this one.

Miss Peregrine follows the story of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a teenager whose life is pulled out from under him when he witnesses the untimely death of his grandfather. Beginning to suspect that the old man’s bedtime stories of a peculiar orphanage locked in time were more than just fiction, Jake sets out to find the truth on a small Welsh island, discovering a world where matrons called Ymbrynes create time loops to protect children subject to supernatural genetic peculiarities, ranging from unusual strength to the power to control bees. From the onset, the film rushes to establish intrigue, forgetting to engage with Jake’s character in the process. Even with his grandfather dying in his arms, it’s hard to empathize with the protagonist when nothing has been seen of their relationship.

Peregrine’s overwrought narrative can’t be entirely blamed on the film. The book, penned by first-time author and photo collector Ransom Riggs, was initially meant to be a compendium of unsettling archival photographs of children. The project was only turned into a novel at the suggestion of Riggs’ editor, resulting in a world as strange as it is unique. If the film were content to examine the deluge of ideas swirling around this miasma of a fictional universe, it may have succeeded — and for the first half of its running time, it mostly does. But, as though a Hollywood executive marched into the writers’ room partway through filming and demanded a more action-filled movie, the final hour is packed with some of the most ill-advised set pieces imaginable, connected to one another by near-incomprehensible plot points of time travel between loops connected to both the present and the past that have to be entered before they close. It all could feasibly make sense, but for a young adult-skewed film with plenty of silliness, the hasty and convoluted excuses for explanations offered by Jake — who somehow makes the leap from confused, awkward teen to strong, silent badass capable of understanding everything in the span of a couple minutes — add little clarity.

The film’s inability to settle on a target age group also jumbles its tone. It’s hard to believe that a movie where a gaggle of skeletons battles cartoonishly with cotton candy-covered monsters also contains an extended scene depicting the villains feasting on the eyes of children in morbid detail. Beetlejuice infused its more humorous moments with the macabre, allowing its darkest points to hit home. This film, on the other hand, sucks the life out of both ends of the spectrum in its refusal to fully commit to either.

Perhaps the most galling omission in Peregrine is a sense of wonder. The trailers interspersed sweeping views of the children’s home with images of the residents therein, using strong orchestral backing to induce a welcome feeling of mystery. The film’s vibe is a far cry from these previews; by focusing on nothing but propelling its ungainly narrative forward, it fails to adequately engage with a single one of the ideas it puts out. Nearly every character is woefully underdeveloped, and the finer aspects of the world — the “peculiars” themselves, for example — are barely touched on. There are few shots of the locations’ surrounding areas, fostering a sense of confusion rather than mystery. And the love story at the center makes absolutely no sense, hitting the right on-screen notes but forgetting to have an actual arc, which results in two characters who have only known each other for a couple days acting like years have passed between them.

Strangely, none of these failings make Peregrine a terrible film, mostly due to solid performances by Ella Purnell and, of course, Eva Green as Miss Peregrine. It’s a shame that the latter isn’t given more to work with, but her commanding presence acts as an anchor for the narrative. The first hour of the movie manages a slow build to the reveal of the orphanage, carrying tension that works while it lasts. The early scenes set in Miss Peregrine’s home achieve a dreamlike quality, and Burton would have done well to spend more time within its walls.

Miss Peregrine’s Home is surprisingly keen to leave its titular orphanage. Were more time spent on the relationships between the children, the ensuing ludicrousness might pack more of an emotional wallop. In fact, the premise begs for the time allowed by a television series (or, fittingly, a book); the fact that the characters end up blurring together despite their inherent distinctiveness speaks volumes about the movie’s preference for fluff over breathing room. When the coherence of a narrative relies on filling a sunken 20th century ship with air to get from one island to another, it’s time to ask what went wrong. The answer might be that the screenwriter’s stable of work includes Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class; all good movies, but high-octane in a way that Miss Peregrine never should have been.

Finally, the pre-release controversy regarding the film’s lack of racially diverse casting can’t be ignored. The problem is very real, as it’s hard to justify yet another coming-of-age movie centered on a white boy’s realization of just how special he is. What’s surprising is how little Peregrine does to challenge the normativity of its protagonist’s arc, blindly casting the only person of color in the entire film as the spectacularly underwritten villain, Barron (Samuel Jackson — even his superior acting chops can’t save the terrible writing). He’s part-monster, with an array of sharp teeth and demonic eyes that are consistently played for scares. Given his lifelong tenure as a scientist, it’s ironic that Barron’s intelligence is consistently outmatched by that of Jake. With no cards up his sleeve, Jackson’s villain is given no redeeming qualities whatsoever, his only real character trait being his ability to put aside any semblance of morality or humanity. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic to say the least — one that the film seems completely oblivious to.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is an ultimately frustrating experience. Flashes of excellence occasionally gleam through the tangled web that forms its narrative, giving a sense of what the film might’ve been had Burton engaged with its world and characters more intimately and avoided a tendency toward setpiece moments. Compared to other patently young-adult movies like Divergent and Maze Runner, Miss Peregrine certainly stands out. But with its talented actors, legendary director and intriguing premise, the movie had the potential to be so much more.