Movie Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
By Matthew Huntley
October 10, 2016

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the type of fantasy tale any production designer, art director or costume designer could really sink their teeth into. With its supernatural elements, multiple eras and locations, and colorful characters, I imagine the head of each department was thinking, “Just think of all the possibilities,” before hitting the ground and running. Indeed, the movie's look and feel are busting and nearly coming apart at the seams, as there's so much happening on screen at any given time.

So much, except, an original and worthwhile story. In an age of countless Harry Potter and superhero films (the X-Men series specifically comes to mind), when it's practically inevitable for any avid moviegoer to at least know about these franchises, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children essentially recycles their characteristics, perhaps as a means to emulate their success or gain members of their fan bases.

But unlike Harry Potter, or the best of the X-Men films, Peregrine races along with a sort of nervous energy that it feels like it's in a rush, despite running over two hours. It doesn't take enough time out to pause and examine the characters or their situations beyond the requirements of the plot. Director Tim Burton probably felt that because his team built such a strong visual canopy, it didn't matter so much what was happening underneath it, and while the resulting experience isn't altogether empty, it's not as dramatic or memorable as it should have been.

To further illustrate the parallels between this movie and Harry Potter, it too follows an adolescent boy who's unaware of his true abilities, and as so many stories of this nature often go, dire circumstances will force him to finally realize them. The boy's name is Jacob (Asa Butterfield, in a rather stiff, unenthusiastic performance), and up until recently, he's considered himself a below average 16-year-old who'd go on living an uneventful life in Florida without making much of an impact on the world around him.

But greater responsibilities are suddenly thrust upon him after his Grandpa Abraham (Terence Stamp), who suffers from dementia, wanders into the woods and is killed by a humanoid monster with fangs for teeth and tentacles for tongues. This creature is called a hollowgast, and we come to learn that only Jacob and his grandfather can see them. Just before he dies, Abraham tells Jacob, “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man's grave. September third, 1940.” These cryptic instructions fit in among the stories Abraham used to tell Jacob when he was a little boy, about how Abraham grew up in a mystical orphanage on Cairnholm Island in Wales, run by the maternal Miss Peregrine (Evan Green).

When Jacob describes his grandfather's gruesome and untimely death to his parents (Chris O'Dowd and Kim Dickens), they send him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Golan (Allison Janney), who suggests he actually visit Cairnholm to confirm there is no magical orphanage (which essentially serves as the Hogwarts of this story). Oh, but there is, and while exploring the local township, Jacob steps through a "time loop,” which transports him back to 1940, the year his grandfather left the orphanage and where he meets Miss Peregrine and her diverse group of peculiar children, each of whom has a unique ability.

Miss Peregrine knows what it's like to be special, as she herself is an ymbryne, which means she can create time loops as well as transform into a bird, fittingly a peregrine falcon. Miss Peregrine's time loop, like those of other ymbrynes around the world, repeats the same day over and over again, and those living in it never age until they step out of it. Miss Peregrine instantiated her loop in an effort to protect children who possess particular gifts because she doesn't believe the outside world will accept them.

Among Peregrine's wards are Emma Bloom (Ella Purnell), who's lighter than air and would float away unless she wears metal shoes. Ella was Abraham's love interest before he left and she develops a similar liking toward Jacob, who poses a threat to Enoch O'Connor (Finlay MacMillan) because he's no longer the lone teenage boy of the house. Enoch isn't shy about showing off his gift, which is bringing humans back to life for a short time. He often ignores his own love interest, Olive (Lauren McCrostie), who can make fire with her hands.

These and the other orphans, whose powers range from invisibility to prophetic dreams to super strength to having a mouth in the back of the head, eventually ban together to battle Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), who in the world of peculiardom, is a Wight, or a former hollowgast who's consumed enough peculiar souls that he now looks human, save for his white eyes. And like most villains who occupy such worlds, Wights only care about obtaining as much power as possible in order to crush anyone not like them, unless Jacob and Miss Peregrine's plucky children can stop him.

Considering the summation of the plot and characters, it's evident Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, draws a lot of (and probably too much) inspiration from others of its kind, and because it has such a familiar setup and execution, I struggled to get excited about its narrative. Perhaps I have a peculiarity of my own, which is the ability to know more or less how everything in a story like this will play out, and I'm willing to bet, reader, you do too. But as useful as such an ability can often be, it unfortunately limits this movie's appeal because there are no major surprises or revelations.

Where the screenplay by Jane Goldman (who, coincidentally, contributed to two X-Men scripts) could have made up for this was by giving the characters more one-on-one, personal time, with scenes that go beyond simply progressing the plot. As I mentioned, a romance blossoms between Jacob and Ella, but it settles on being standard with a perfunctory conclusion. There are also no substantive scenes in which Jacob, Ella or any of the other orphans genuinely express what it's like to live the same day over and over again while being forced to hide who they really are from the outside world. Digging into this aspect of the story would have things more interesting, but unfortunately the movie's plot becomes so basic and routine that it ends up as an element we simply don't think or care much about, which shouldn't be case. We want the movie to venture into more emotional and eventful territory to help it stand out.

The elements that do stand out are Gavin Bocquet's production design, Greg Berry and others' art direction, and Colleen Atwood's costumes, which, collectively, place us in a very distinct and rich universe, where the atmosphere and mood are a mix of brightness, darkness, happiness, fear, angst and romance. Visually, we don't know where the movie will take us, and that was exciting, but the lively tapestry generated by the sets, lighting and wardrobe can only go so far before we consider them mere decorations that attempt to compensate for the lack of substance and hackneyed storytelling.

I assume that if Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is successful enough, the studio will want to adapt the other two novels in Riggs' series: Hollow City and Library of Souls.” And now that the setup of Peregrine's world is complete, hopefully the filmmakers can start to develop the characters and really hone in on their personalities and relationships. Had they done that with this first entry, the movie might have been an enchanting gem outside of its superficial qualities. Granted, they're superb superficial qualities, but superficial nonetheless.