“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is a movie intended to challenge the idea that everything has already been discovered, that the world has been completely strip-mined of its wonder. If the message comes across as canned and unconvincing, perhaps that’s because director Tim Burton has spent a large part of the last 15 years ghoulishly repackaging some of the most exhausted stories in Western culture — at this point, his involvement in this project is like John Lasseter making a film that lamented the decline of hand-drawn animation, or Zack Snyder making a film that lamented the loss of quality blockbuster entertainment.
Of course, the film — an adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ 2011 YA novel of the same name — could have been a perfect fit. Burton, much like young protagonist Jake Portman, has been waiting for the right prompt to remind him of his purpose and restore his sense of possibility. This could have been his mea culpa, his attempt to reclaim the artistry that once elevated him to the ranks of the world’s most popular auteurs. It could have been the movie that rekindled his vision.
On the contrary, this fanciful tale of time loops, floating kewpie dolls and enchanted worlds that exist just out of sight is the sum of a million different things that have already been found and thoroughly excavated. Burton doesn’t reinvent (or even reanimate) YA movies so much as he layers a Tim Burton Snapchat filter over them, as though a surplus of big eyes might compensate for a lack of big ideas.
The novel may have been derivative to begin with, but the film does everything it can to compound that feeling of familiarity, reaching far beyond the confines of its genre in order to borrow recognizable tropes from a wide variety of recent blockbusters. Pilfering as liberally from “Jumper” and “Inception” as it does from more obvious points of reference like “Harry Potter”and “X-Men,” “Miss Peregrine’s” is a hollow ode to wonder and weirdness that suggests we’re running perilously low on both.
In fiction like this, the hero is often the least interesting character (all the better to encourage identification with the Chosen One and stress just how strange things are inside the wardrobe), but “Miss Peregrine’s” takes things to a whole new level. Growing up in the cultural desert of contemporary Florida — the blandness of which Burton hammers home by following a grandiose credits sequence with an amusing smash-cut to the beaches of Jeb Bush country — 16-year-old Jake is as dull as the department store where he works, and he remains a total wet blanket even after he’s spirited away to a mysterious Welsh island on a search for the magical orphans who populated the bedtime stories that his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp, gouged to death in his first scene), had told him as a kid.
Jake was always going to be a thankless part, but Asa Butterfield doesn’t do our hero any favors. So infectiously astonished in the title role of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” the British actor seems bogged down by his adopted accent, resulting in a flat and affectless performance. Jake is meant to accentuate the increasing peculiarity of the movie around him, but Butterfield only makes everything else feel more ordinary by association. When the doddering teen steps through a portal that takes him back to the 1940s — back to the day before Abe’s gothically furnished foster home had been obliterated by a Nazi airstrike — it’s hard to imagine why all of his grandfather’s kooky childhood friends are so eager to keep him there. Sure, this motley crew of misfits is understandably desperate for new friends after hiding inside of an endlessly repeating 24-hour time loop for more than 70 years, but Jake is just so boring.
And yet, the miserable residents of Miss Peregrine’s School for Gifted Youngsters — sorry, “Home for Peculiar Children” — don’t make a strong case in favor of the alternative. The kids range from X-Men rejects, to “Beetlejuice” extras, to a girl who looks as though she’s been Weird Science-d out of those creepily fetishized Steve Madden ads where all the women have big shoes, tiny waists and giant heads, each of them so thoroughly Burton-ized that it’s hard to believe they were all first conceived for Riggs’ book. Yes, even the prim young lady who eats her food with a pair of monster jaws that lurk under the curls on the back of her skull. Yes, even Jake’s fairy tale love interest (Ella Purnell), who’s meant to be playing a pubescent girl but still looks creepily similar to the nubile female leads of almost every other Tim Burton movie.
The director delights in their weirdness (look at how weird they are! Everyone is so WEIRD! Can you mouth-breathers at the multiplexes even handle how weird this is!?), and reiterates ad nauseam that being a normal is so boring you might as well just die.
That’s an easier argument to make in movies that refuse to make it, in movies where mutants with cool superpowers are broadly representative of marginalized subgroups who are feared by mainstream culture. Here, in a self-involved knockoff that can’t stop yammering about how being different is better, there’s a kid who can’t talk without hundreds of bees flying out of his mouth. What a gift. By the time Samuel L. Jackson and his relentless group of Death Eaters show up and start trying to kill the peculiars in order to eat their eyeballs and achieve immortality, his evil plan feels more like mercy than anything else.
Thank God for Eva Green.
The patron saint of bad movies for (and/or about) teenage boys, Green plays Miss Peregrine herself, a character who could easily have been reduced to “sexy Dumbledore” if not for the vibrance and presentness of the actress who plays her. A witchy woman who can turn into a bird — a peregrine, in fact! — and is capable of suggesting a far greater mystery than the film is able to muster for itself, she’s the only person here who feels like they haven’t heard this story before (Jackson gets credit for trying, giving his giddy, goofy villain the full Nicolas Cage treatment while losing a war of attrition against a script that invites him to be silly but needs him to be stupid).
Fortunately, there’s a silver lining to the idea of Burton making a staid YA movie, which is that the restraints of the genre keep him on rails, like bowling lane bumpers for his worst instincts. His aesthetic flourishes are forced to remain just that, not allowed to drive the show as they did in “Alice in Wonderland.” As the plot grows more inane, these details even begin to feel welcome — there’s a beautiful moment of Jake tugging Emma down the beach as she floats above him like a balloon on a string, for example, and a nice bit with some Ray Harryhausen-like skeletons — and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography remains lush even during the senseless final battle (avoid the rubbish 3D, which is too dark even for Burton).
At once both hopelessly trite and singularly Burton, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” argues that the world is full of wonder and magic that would fill us with purpose if only we could see it. It’s a nice idea, but this movie has no idea where we ought to be looking.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” opens in theaters on Friday, September 30.