Peculiar Children, peculiar villains, peculiar directing choices, peculiar movie. This film defines the term 'mixed bag' as it feels original and visually sumptuous one minute, derivative and needlessly disturbing the next, but its biggest sin is a lack of cohesive storytelling. 2 out of 5.
Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) lives the life of a lonely teenage boy in suburban Florida. With neither a close nor antagonistic relationship with his parents, all that has brought joy to Jake's life are the stories his Polish grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) used to tell him: tales of a special Welsh home he grew up in, backed by vernacular photographs of the rather incredible friends he had there. As Jake aged, however, he came to believe the photographs were tricks and his grandfather suffered from dementia. All that changes one night when Abe is attacked and his dying words to Jake include instructions to find "the loop" and "the bird" who will explain everything. The clues - and the prompting of Jake's therapist (Allison Janney) - lead Jake to an island off the coast of Wales where, after a quick jog through time, he comes face-to-face with the truth - and danger - in Abe's tales.
Director Tim Burton brought the pages of this novel to life; several times I remarked how scenes looked exactly as I imagined them when I read it five years ago. Then he forgets the value of restraint and goes too far, as the final third of the movie dissolves into something resembling a battle between Junior X-Men and a collection of leftovers from early Burton films. We want to see more of Eva Green as the lovely-but-severe Miss Peregrine (her clipped tones are pitch-perfect), and the doe-eyed Ella Purnell as head peculiar child Emma. Butterfield, too, is well-cast - his line readings are on a level not many teen actors achieve. There are moments of beauty, such as when Jake first finds Miss Peregrine's Home, and when Emma shares her secret place (a sunken ship) with Jake.
The peculiar children live in a Groundhog Day-like time loop, repeating the same day in 1943 over and over, but the idea and its effects on their lives aren't fully explored. I asked my 11-year-old daughter what she liked about the film. She thought for a good minute, then shrugged. Here's why: Burton's style overtook any substance. There's wonder and imagination here, but they are painted on a canvas unsupported by meaning. Yes, some movies can be 'just for fun,' but if the story is disjointed the experience will be forgotten, or worse, remembered only for the scary bits, which are plentiful here. Even the great Samuel L. Jackson is wasted as a treacherous villain whose lines feel like they were written on the spot.
Some fans of the book may be disappointed by the ending, which is both more and less than what transpires in the novel, almost as if the studio never intends to make the other books in the series into films (which is actually refreshing in this era of sequels-for-all, but doesn't play to fans here). Viewers will also be forgiven if they find their minds going to places like: "What happened to Jake's dad?" "What are the rules of these time loops again?" "Is this Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, or Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters: 1943 British Campus?"
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
Where's the hope? In the world of Peculiars, either you fearfully hide in time and never grow up, or you seek immortality through bad science and become a monster. Abe is an exception - if your only peculiarity is being able to see the monsters others can't, perhaps you make the courageous choice to go out into the world as a protector. Some viewers may leave wondering about Jake's relationship with his parents; the storyline with his washout father seems, in fact, abandoned two-thirds of the way through. Prophecy and prophetic dreams play a small part in the plot. Jake must learn trust, while community becomes the solution to his loneliness. The wisdom of seeking safety at any cost is a debatable issue. Ferreting out truth and learning to love are big parts of the story, but a distinct lack of joy drapes a wet blanket over the whole thing.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of fantasy action/violence and peril
- Language/Profanity: A single instance of 'go--amn;' 'oh my God;' 'crap;' 'craphole.'
- Sexuality/Nudity: Some teenage flirting and brief, tasteful kissing; an invisible character is nude in several scenes; Emma removes her dress to go swimming but, appropriate to the time period, her undergarments are not revealing.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Lots and lots of teeth, tentacles and glowing white eyes as characters called hollows and hollowghasts hunt several human characters; skeletons; corpses, most of whom have had the eyeballs removed; we witness disembodied eyeballs being feasted upon by monsters; a field full of murdered sheep; children in peril; the children don gas masks each night to continually witness a German air raid of their home - we see the bomb drop; Ymbrynes are caged and injured in their bird forms; one peculiar child has the talent to animate dead bodies or inanimate objects by placing a heart within them, and some of his experiments are quite disturbing; Miss Peregrine awaits the daily arrival of a hollow which she kills with a crossbow; we're told there are some iterations of the daily loop where Miss Peregrine has had to kill local police who came investigating.
Drugs/Alcohol: A scene in a Welsh pub turns into a melee with many spilled beers and broken mugs; Jake's dad wastes time drinking in the pub instead of working on a project; Miss Peregrine smokes a pipe.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: It's not required that one has read the original book by Ransom Riggs to understand the goings-on, but I do recommend the film only as a curiosity to those who have read it. One note about the book: Riggs wrote this piece of YA fiction around an idea to incorporate kinda-creepy, real-life vintage photos of children doing remarkable things like levitating or lifting heavy objects. The book was never as freaky as that sounds, to its credit. The film? In Burton's hands? The opposite is true.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: As a result, if you just don't need any more writhing tentacles or skeleton armies in your life, avoid this one. The thematic rewards just aren't there, and kids under 12 may be justifiably creeped out.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, directed by Tim Burton, opened in theaters September 30, 2016; available for home viewing December 13, 2016. It runs 127 minutes and stars Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Allison Janney, Samuel L. Jackson, Ella Purnell, Terence Stamp and Rupert Everett. Watch the trailer for Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: September 29, 2016